Industry experts say they hope the impact to consumers will be minimal, with little disruption to the supply chain.
The River Fire, now one of the largest in California, is chewing through chaparral and trees on the south side of River Road.
On the north side, within shouting distance of the conflagration, grows millions of dollars worth of produce that growers and farmworkers alike hope will feed people across the nation.
Ag industry experts say they hope the impact to consumers will be minimal, with little disruption to the supply chain than has already taken place this year under the pandemic.
Right now, they are preoccupied with keeping the farmworkers who pick that produce safe from smoke, heat and fire.
“It’s quite the perfect storm for us in many regards,” Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales said. “If the pandemic wasn’t enough that we’d been dealing with, here we have this heat wave, these fires, and now the smoke.
“You gotta harvest the day you gotta harvest, and early in the day. Otherwise, if you miss that point, your crop will be a loss,” Gonzales said.
If farmworkers can’t go out because it’s too dangerous to their health; if the fire is too close, the heat too high or the smoke too thick, that could mean shortages or scarcities of certain foods, and price increases.
“We have to wait and see how big of a problem this is,” Gonzales said.
What fruits or vegetables are impacted by wildfires?
Wine grapes and strawberry growers could see a loss because of smoke and the layer of ash that’s raining down onto the berries, Gonzales said.
“Dealing with heat is not something new but the smoke is,” he added. “For instance, there’s the concern that the smoke could taint the wine grapes and cause those to be lost. That was the experience up in Napa County from the fires last year.
“The other,” Gonzales said, “is ash. With some crops, if there’s ash on the crop, it’ll be a loss. You can’t harvest some crops that have ash. Strawberries are the tough one because what do you do? You can’t wash them.”
Carolyn O’Donnell, California Strawberry Commission communications director, said strawberry growers were already facing challenges from the recent heatwave.
“Now, we’re adding the smoke and ash on top of that,” she said.
Strawberries typically are priced to attract customers into grocery stores because customers usually buy multiple items if they’re purchasing strawberries, such as yogurt, granola, ice or whipped cream, O’Donnell said.
“Generally, the price is pretty sensitive to the supply. But, a lot of times the price you see in the supermarket is not necessarily connected to that supply,” she added.
However, a decrease in strawberry production owed to the surge in fires could push price points out of reach for some customers, she said.
“It may cause a temporary disruption in the market,” O’Donnell said. “The thing to keep in mind is that strawberries are continuously blooming and producing fruit, so as long as the plants are undamaged, we can expect to see the disruption be only temporary.”
Is my food safe to eat?
Most foods packaged in-field, such as leaf lettuce would have the smoky or ashy outer leaves trimmed away, said Grower-Shipper Association of Central California President Chris Valadez.
According to a 2018 preliminary UC Cooperative Extension Sonoma study, smoke from 2017 fires had little impact on local Sonoma County produce.
Based on preliminary findings, “…produce safety was not significantly affected by the fires and may be mitigated by washing produce.”
In short, yes, food that is grown or harvested near a wildfire should be safe to eat if appropriately washed.
Valadez said he has received reports that lettuces or other foods heading to processors, such as heads of romaine lettuce that will get chopped up and bagged for a salad kit, are using more water to wash them.
However, even if there is some residue left on them, consumers should be all right.
Wildfire smoke or ash doesn’t appear to cause acute health problems in produce consumers as it is predominantly natural material, said the Strawberry Commission’s O’Donnell.
Risk to farmworkers
Farmworkers, without whom there would be no produce on the shelves of the grocery stores, are facing these risky conditions in the fields of the Salinas Valley.
Once the level of particulate matter 2.5 in the air reaches a certain point, Cal/OSHA regulations suggest sending workers home so they don’t damage their lungs or get sick.
Some growers have already begun planning for shortened work hours, Valadez said, even if that means taking a loss when it comes to produce.
“They want to reduce the amount of exposure to wildfire smoke,” Valadez said. “If they have the ability to move a crew to a different, safer location, I know some are looking to reduce exposure but still getting in as much work as possible.”
That might mean not harvesting that day, or getting a few hours in the morning, or even changing up where they plan on harvesting, depending on where the smoke is hitting, Valadez said.
Some anticipate not picking tomorrow, he added.
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The Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office announced it would give farmworkers N-95 masks to protect them from inhaling smoke or ash as they worked shortly after the River Fire began blazing in the mountains south of Salinas.
According to the 2018 Salinas and Pajaro Valleys Farmworker Housing Study, at least 93,000 farmworkers live and work in the area.
Each of them likely would go through one N-95 mask a day, Gonzales said, though depending on the duration and intensity of use, they might be able to re-use their mask.
Congressman Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) has also drafted a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, co-signed by Congressman Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), requesting more N-95 masks be sent to California, earmarked for farmworkers harvesting produce that will feed the nation.
Since Monday, the county agricultural office has given away at least 90,000 masks –– it gave away 10,000 in just the first day –– and has another 100,000 arriving Friday afternoon, Gonzales said.
“We’ve had cars and trucks at our office and the phone ringing off the hook,” Gonzales said. “We’re in peak harvest season. It’s not safe for farmworkers, on top of everything else…at least they have some level of protection from the smoke with those N-95s.”
Kate Cimini is a reporter with The Salinas Californian. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.