Locavore Losses: California’s Chefs, Artisans Feel the Drought


At Nopalito, if the local corn runs out, you might as well shut the doors. It’s typical for the restaurant’s two San Francisco locations to go through 200 pounds of California-grown organic masa in a single day. The grain is at the menu’s core, used in everything from tamales, to tortillas, to house-made chips.

In mid-September, Nopalito’s owner, Laurence Jossel, learned that Giusto’s, the Northern California grain processor and wholesaler from which Nopalito sources its flours, had run out of corn after severe drought conditions caused the product to dry up. “It’s been a mad scramble,” says Jossel. He and his head chef called restaurants all over the city, searching for a locally-grown equivalent, without luck. In a pinch, they settled on more expensive organic corn flour from Montana and some from as far as Mexico.

“We can’t run a restaurant based on [corn] without it,” says Jossel. With no end to the California drought in sight, chefs like Jossel, and many artisan food makers who rely on local food, are feeling the squeeze.

In January 2014, California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to severe drought conditions. Eight months later, with the continuation of one of the driest years on record, 95 percent of the state continues to suffer under “extreme drought conditions.” Reservoir levels are shockingly low and wells are going dry, a fact that lead Governor Brown to sign emergency groundwater regulation legislation on September 16.

As widely reported, California’s large-scale agricultural operations, most notably livestock and dairy, have been severely impacted. Across the state, the financial hit to agriculture will reach an estimated $2.2 billion, say economists at University of California Davis. As harvest season ramps up, the true impact of the drought for everyone, not just Big Agriculture, is coming into high relief.

On September 17, the same day Jossel’s wholesale corn order dried up, he visited the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, only to discover that Dirty Girl Produce, an organic farm located near Santa Cruz, had run out of its famous dry-farmed tomatoes two months earlier than normal. Sadly, says farmer Joel Schirmer, “those two months usually generate the highest income of the year.”

Schirmer’s tomatoes depend on winter rain for moisture, which is then trapped in the soil through mulching. The first wave, planted in early spring, did fine. The second wave couldn’t tap enough moisture in the soil to survive summer’s heat stress; Schirmer says at least 20 inches of rain are needed to set a baseline for the plants. This time of year, he and his workers should be packing up wholesale crates for shipment to Whole Foods and other large retailers. Instead, the farmer says he’ll lose an estimated $100,000 in sales.

And he’s not out of the woods yet. Schirmer relies on well water for the rest of his fall crops and says, “We could have a well go down on a piece of property that’s filled with baby plants. That would be devastating.”

Still, Schirmer says, farming requires him to evolve or die. “It’s a lesson not to put all your eggs in one basket.”

At June Taylor Jams in Berkeley, flexibility is equally as important. Owner June Taylor uses Dirty Girl tomatoes into late fall for small-batch production of ketchup, paste, and sauces, but she too received word about the season’s untimely end.

“If I can’t get major fruits–pears, tomatoes–that is going to be difficult,” says Taylor. At the same time, with the unusually early arrival of apples, pears and figs, September has been busy.

“I used to think of September as a month where we could take a break after getting through the summer production,” says Taylor, who’s been preserving local produce for 25 years. “But now it’s as busy as June. The rhythms seem out-of-whack and water is one of the key components.”

Tough decisions about water are all in a day’s work at Toluma Farms, a 160-acre goat ranch outside of Tomales, California. In 2013, husband-and-wife team Tamara Hicks and David Jablons ventured into cheesemaking with Tomales Farmstead Creamery. They don’t have “a normative baseline” for what it’s like to make cheese outside of drought conditions, says Hicks, but it requires a lot of water.

Toluma Farms is well known in the community for having good water, she explains. But that didn’t prevent a water scare last year when one of their two streams dried up. She and Jablons had to cut down to a single daily milking and eliminate one water-intensive cleaning of the milking parlor.

This year, the pastures where the goats feed greened-up three months later than usual, resulting in a gap in nutrition for the animals. Trucking in alfalfa cost $8,000 for two months of feed, a financial cut that hit the new business hard. They ended up growing their own combination of dry-farmed oats, rye, and clover for the animals–an alternative that is lower in protein, but beneficial in other ways. It’s a solution for now, but Hicks does say if the drought worsens this year, “all bets are off.”

The flavor and consistency of the goat’s milk has also been impacted, creating a challenge for head cheesemaker Jennifer Kirkham. In dry times, milk tends to be higher in fat and contain less moisture. It also becomes less predictable as an ingredient. Last December, just as the ranch scrambled to replace the goat’s normal feed, Kirkham had to stop making Kenne, a soft ripened cheese, because the batch failed. Small percentage changes in the butterfat and protein content of the milk, due to changes in the animal feed, prevented the cheese from draining fast enough, so that it didn’t set properly.

“We’re having conversations based on what the goats are eating, which is based on rain and water,” says Hicks. “We’ll probably only make hard cheeses during the winter.”

Like other small farmers, ranchers, and artisans, Hicks and her husband are having hard conversations about what comes next, while operating on the premise that they might be up against a long-term climatic shift. “We have to figure out how not to be operating in crisis mode,” explains Hicks.

Decades of working with seasonal produce has taught jam-maker June Taylor to work first with what nature has on offer, but she too believes the changes chefs and artisans are seeing now could have a lasting impact.

“People have to think about what this means on a broader and longer-term basis regarding what farmers can produce in California and what won’t work,” she says. “We keep saying ‘If we just get some rain,’ but I don’t think one winter of rain will rebalance things.”

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  1. Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
    I'm glad to see this article; and, how ironic that the country is suffering from unprecedented low corn prices. Not the kind of corn that this article talks about of course.

    Meanwhile I noticed some people commented on Bill 1871 (to regulate California farmers markets to ensure produce is coming from the stated farm) that they are opting to buy produce at grocery stores instead of farmers market to avoid the "seconds" looking produce at the markets. Friends, "it's the drought." And farmers markets are MADE for seconds that laws prevent farmers from selling to stores.

    Let's whatever we can to help farmers get through this!
  2. Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
    It's really too bad - I love Nopalito and all, but given this restaurant's (and chef's) reputation as a localvore, I would imagine that changing their menu up would be the right thing to do.

    Localvores know that what makes sense for the environment and ecosystem also makes sense for business. But to put business interests before the plain truth? We're past that. Or so I thought...
  3. Reggie
    Thursday, October 2nd, 2014
    Yep, sounds like agriculture in California is finished for good to hear you guys tell it. Gonna hafta do all our farming up in Northern Canada where global warming will certainly create a farmer's paradise in a year or two. We will need lots and lots of yuppie housing to move all locavores up there too. Can't be much of a locavore in a permanent disaster area like California. Used to be Texas was always lurching from crisis to disaster with their farming but now that it's stylish to be a failure Californians are eager to cry the blues.