Drought forces Le Grand grower out of farmers markets

06/29/2014 6:50 PM

06/29/2014 10:09 PM

Le Grand-based Marchini Farms will not be participating in farmers markets this year, the latest casualty of California’s drought.

Marc Marchini, sales manager for the 1,500-acre farm, said some of the farm’s wells are operating at about half capacity. So all the water resources will be directed toward the farm’s permanent crops, like almonds and walnuts.

“Seeing as the farmers market was something we did for the community and ourselves on the side, it got put on the back burner,” he said. “Not to say we’ll never do it again. It’s just, we’ve got to take off a year.”

Marchini Farms has participated in farmers markets and fruit stands in the area for more than two decades, he said. It is best known for its sweet corn sold at markets in Merced, Los Banos and Chowchilla, among others.

It also sold watermelon, cantaloupe, summer squash and bell peppers, among other crops, at the farmers markets. To grow crops for this year’s markets, he said, he would have been forced to charge more than he believed was reasonable at such venues.

Marchini said the farmers markets are not big earners for farms, but rather are a service to local communities. They also offer summer jobs for young people and farmworkers.

“We’ve always appreciated all the support over the years,” he said. “We’re still an alive-and-well family farm, we’ve just got to focus on keeping our permanent crops.”

California’s drought year, which is affecting farmers of all sizes, has many of them digging deeper wells and pumping groundwater. The lack of rain has left many wells dry.

Jim Shasky, owner of Shasky Farms in Le Grand, said his farm will remain part of the farmers markets this year.

Though he’s pumped more water than usual, the fruit and nuts he sells at the farmers markets are the same products he sells on a large scale. That makes his farmers market offerings different than Marchini’s.

His 160-acre operation sells at farmers markets in Merced, Los Banos, Mariposa and other cities.

Shasky said farmers markets could be the first place many large farmers could cut to save money in a difficult year.

Le Grand has had well-related problems of late. In June, it received $237,000 in state funds for the first phase of redeveloping its wells that service residents, according to Kassy Chauhan, Merced district engineer for the state Department of Public Health.

The money will help rehabilitate a water well drilled in 1966 that collapsed because of its age and another one that had a valve fall out. A third well needs new equipment to reach its capacity of producing 1,000 gallons a minute after it dropped to 200 gallons a minute.

Many farmers have also left land fallow to try to account for the smaller amounts of water they’ll see this year.

Maxwell Norton, a University of California Cooperative Extension adviser, said some smaller growers rely on farmers markets as a large part of their income.

Farmers markets are popular with many folks because the food is fresh, often picked the previous day, “which is about as fresh as you can get,” he said.

Beyond freshness, shoppers are able to interact with the growers, he said. Regular customers are able to get to know farmers and discuss with them how and why the food is grown.

The markets also offer hard-to-find products and a chance to ensure the shopper’s dollars go to a local grower.

Certified farmers markets, which are regulated by the state Department of Agriculture, require that most of what is sold comes from the seller’s farm or a neighboring farm.

“It gives people an opportunity to support truly local businesses,” Norton said. “I think that’s a satisfying thing for many people.”

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