Drought in the West Is Bringing Hard Times to Minority Farmers

More outreach is needed to educate small farmers about federal aid.

California’s driest winter on record has caused Fresno grower Kevin Yang to leave two-thirds of his land fallow. 

“It’s killing me right now,” he said. “I have 30 acres. I just have 10 acres of strawberries [planted] now. The rest of my land … I can’t use it. It’s too dry. I have to wait for rain to come.”

Yang, a Hmong grower who owns Kevin’s Farm, located in the Central Valley half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, usually grows cherry tomatoes and long beans, an Asian specialty crop that has a ready market in California. But, this year, Yang’s profits will be cut. Even his strawberries are too small. 

California is experiencing record dry conditions, with this year projected to be the driest on record. The state usually relies on three months of rain from December to February to replenish its water supply. But, with three consecutive years of below average winter rainfall, supplies are alarmingly low. The snowpack – which serves as water storage for the drier summer months – is 20 percent of normal; reservoirs are very low for this time of year, and groundwater levels statewide have dropped significantly.

The severity of the drought prompted Governor Jerry Brown to declare a drought emergency on Jan. 17, a move largely aimed at boosting morale in this huge agricultural state. The declaration triggered limited federal assistance to state growers and livestock producers. Small farmers, who represent the majority (85 percent) of farming operations in the state, could get relief through an emergency loan program, but low enrollment in other federal loan programs suggest robust outreach efforts are needed, especially among minority farmers. 

Yang taps groundwater from a well to irrigate his crops. Arid conditions mean he has to spend more money to pump more water to sustain his farm. He says he can’t afford to pump the extra water needed to soften his soil.

“My land is very hard, like rock,” he said. “I use equipment to chomp down [on the ground, but] I can’t do it. I need the water. When I turn the pump on, it costs me $4000 a month.”

Yang also has to make monthly payments of about $500 on a loan of $35,000 he took out last year from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). He says he’s two months behind on those loan payments.

Emergency loans provide relief

The emergency loan program triggered by the state’s emergency drought declaration could help to refinance Yang’s loan or defer payments, according to Val Dolcini, state executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency. 

Growers can borrow up to $500,000 at a low interest rate of 2 to 3 percent to help restore property, pay for production costs, and cover essential family living expenses, he said. Growers and ranchers whose production has fallen because of the drought can apply for the loan. Dolcini says [growers and ranchers] in nearly all state counties are eligible to apply, as nearly all counties in the state are experiencing “severe” or “extreme” drought conditions. 

Information gap for minority farmers

Growers can already apply for the federal crop insurance program, which is limited because it covers specific crops only. 

Michael Yang of the University of California Cooperative Extension, which runs a statewide program to help small farmers, says the crop insurance program doesn’t cover specialty crops, such as Asian vegetables grown by hundreds of Asian farmers in the Central Valley.

Yang (no relation to Kevin Yang), who is Hmong and used to be a vegetable farmer himself, says the USDA offers an insurance program for non-specialty crops, but few Southeast Asian farmers apply for it.

According to the USDA office in Frenso, the busiest office in the state according to Dolcini, 120 farmers in the county participated in the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) from 2011-2013. Of that number, 18 were Asian. 

Michael Yang says, in general, Hmong farmers face language and cultural barriers in accessing government programs. In addition, the farmers lack the required paperwork -- records and documentation -- needed to apply for federal loans. 

Dolcini says the NAP program is just one part of the USDA’s overall portfolio. California’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) has nearly 1,100 borrowers, with some racial groups receiving loans in proportion to their population. About a fifth of the state’s farming operations are owned by minority farmers. While Asians operate about 4.5 percent of the farms (2007 agriculture census), they received 8.5 percent of the FSA loans as of Sept. 2013. Latinos own 12 percent of farms, but account for just 3.5 percent of loan recipients. 

Dolcini said his office has made strides to build relationships with small, ethnic farmers, including hiring more diverse staff and developing a microloan program targeted to ethnic borrowers who face obstacles in the loan process.

“Ethnic famers around the state haven’t worked as closely with our offices,” he said. “In Fresno, we’ve made an effort to hire Hmong-speaking staff. Our office is providing culturally sensitive and appropriate information to growers who may need our help.”

Michael Yang with the UCCE says, “If the drought continues, a lot of the small farmers are going to suffer.” He says farmers are having to spend upwards of $20,000 to drill a deeper well if they have run out of water. 

“A lot of small farms will not be able to do that. That costs a lot,” he said, adding that more small farmers may go out of business.

Costs rising for small farmers

Grace Teressi, the owner of Miramonte Farms and Nursery in San Benito County, says the drier conditions are making her “very nervous.”

She says water does two things: it softens the earth and flushes salt lower into the soil. 

“Usually, the rains soften the soil. It’s a pre-planting step that nature usually takes care of and allows for planting,” she said. 

Now Teressi, who relies on groundwater to irrigate her crops, has to spend more money to pump water. 

Teressi says growers are being more selective about the crops they are planting. She sells her produce at farmers markets throughout the Bay Area. She says she’s had to increase her prices by 20 percent.

She’s already had to adapt to drier farming conditions, including adopting more “dry farming” on crops such as tomatoes. She says the technique involves “minimizing water” and “stressing” the plant. 

“You lose tonnage and yield, but you increase quality and flavor,” she said.

“I do it all the time. The earth is getting drier and it’s my own way of trying to adapt.”

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