The Fringe and the Eel 11/7/12

Meadow Story

11/7/12  Another chapter in the continuing disappearance of family farm agriculture in Northern California  by the Fringe

I had a conversation the other night which began as a chat and ended with a story that wrapped a chill around my heart, and if you love cows and sweet grass and people who go to work in the early morning gloom it will do the same for you.

The Eel River delta is 33,000 acres of some of the most beautiful grass in California; it’s as though you took the meadows around Sierraville and increased them ten times.  The hills around the delta are carpeted in grass and the mountains are cloaked in redwoods.  The Eel itself arrives tired and choked with sand, gravel and the bleached and worn boles of large redwood trees.  It only “flows” into the sea in the wet months; throughout the year the Eel “pulses”, rising and falling with the tides like a heartbeat, and many of the rich pasture lands around it enjoy twice daily soakings as the water level rises and falls.

Such a rich and beautiful place is always soaked in blood, and the Eel Delta is no exception.  After the gold rush, white settlers grabbed the “unowned” land; one family owned 250,000 acres in the area.  Native Americans were a serious pest to early settlers, and one night in 1860 a set of coordinated attacks intended to “kill every peaceable Indian – man, woman, and child” decimated the population.

The area is known for dairy cows and boasts a creamery and a cheese factory, both of which produce quality products.  As times changed, some of the dairies have followed the upscale market to “organic” and “grass fed” niches.   Driving through the bottoms of the delta one sees beautiful, often enormous, barns and classical two and three story houses.  These were built on cream, many a hundred or more years ago.

Morning on the Eel Delta

I talked with a local person recently, and by “local” I mean he has long, strong roots in the community.  He’s a decent sort, gives a lot of time to neighbors and the community, and works in the local industry.  I made a remark about how good it was to see so much grass in the meadows, and what good news that was to the dairies.

To my amazement, he laughed.  When I asked him what was funny, he said the grass in the meadows wasn’t making any money, it was the grass in the hills.

When I asked for clarification he described a ruined economy and generations old family farms who were supported by marijuana dollars.  Those who didn’t trade in marijuana, he said, were “starving.”

He made mention of an event that happened at the end of October when a well known and respected dairyman, 58, allegedly broke into a local apartment and he and three associates pepper sprayed everyone home, including an infant and a toddler.  The reason?  Stolen marijuana.  That is just one example, my informant said.  Nearly all the successful dairies traded in pot.

I brought up Humboldt Creamery which a few years ago had been thriving, venturing out in to the higher valued organic products.  “Broke” he said.

It turns out that the Creamery, which had been a co-op of 50 small dairy farmers, went bankrupt in 2009 when the executive director left for Wyoming without warning.  The farmers hadn’t been paid for their milk for a few weeks, but reportedly hadn’t been worried since they owned the company and it was doing great, according to the information director Richard Ghilarducci, worth  $80 to $100 million.  In fact, good old boy and life long local Ghilarducci had been stealing from and misleading the farmers.  The company had very little inventory, and what inventory it had was reportedly stacked to hide the empty areas behind.  The company the coop owners thought they had was a ruse, a false front like the stacks of inventory.  The company sold for under 20 million, hitting the farmers hard, ruining or nearly ruining some.  Unpaid milk receipts meant unpaid fuel bills, unpaid loan debt.  The fall of the Creamery had a ripple effect in the community.

Humboldt Creamery from Fernbridge

The new owners of the creamery don’t pay as well as the coop, and trucking costs are on the increase. Bailers and tractors cost money.  Borrowing money, it turns out, costs money. There is no way to compete with the dairies of the central valley, who raise cows on grain and recombinate DNA alfalfa and bovine growth hormone.

A cow on the meadows lives longer, is happier and healthier, and gives a more complete milk.  The “contented cows” of California’s dairies live on the Eel River delta.  That doesn’t put beans on the table.

Besides, since the tractor was invented farmers have had the problem of too many kids to keep on the farm.  If all we have to do is let the younger generation sprout some weed and they can save the farm and stick around home, why the hell not?  Growing things is what farmers do.

I asked my source if all the dairies on the bottoms used cannabis dollars to subsidize their legitimate farming.  No, he said, then he named dairies he felt weren’t and said, “drive down the lanes; the places that need new barns and have old pickups in the yard are probably honest.”   Again he used the word “starving”.

He also told me that a lot of the lush green meadows I see are lush and green because they are abandoned.  It doesn’t pay the families to put cows on them.  I was stunned and depressed about a state that can have such high food costs and still force farmers to leave rich land fallow.  That seems to be the state of agriculture in the north of California.  To be sure, there are still a lot of cattle on the meadows of the Eel delta, but I took a drive and did see large tracts which were neither baled or being grazed, though perhaps at another time of year there might be dairy cattle on them.  There are also beef cattle, primarily angus, which graze the higher grassy areas.  Inquiries to a member of a farm family produced “a ton an acre” for grass hay when the higher meadows are mowed.  The more productive areas probably produce about 4 tons per acre.  U.C. Davis has estimated it costs about a $1,000 an acre to produce hay including everything from equipment and labor costs to the cost of borrowing money. Given that grass hay brings in about $320 a ton, not even a farmer can keep that up long.  Unless his hay habit is subsidized either by Uncle Sam, or perhaps Aunt Mary Jane.

Did my source know what he was talking about?   He’s what would be called “an in-context local informant.”  Some of what he knows, he knows; some of what he knows, everybody knows; some of what he knows he guesses; some of what he told me was to reward me for my interest.  Still, I did some tracking on a few local dairies, and looked up the federal subsidies they’ve received at farm.ewg.org.  I also researched the contribution that marijuana, both medical and recreational, makes to Humboldt county.  Needless to say it dwarfs dairy production, and may provide up to 60% of the income in the famous Emerald Triangle county.  The cheese factory keeps a few hundred cows going, but that’s about all.  There are

No doubt there are more dairies than the narrative implies that get by without growing pot.  Still, local ranchers made moonshine during prohibition, and some of the ancestors of local farmers were willing bludgeon native women and children to death.  Should we expect this generation of dairy farmers to go down easy?

Let’s let the facts settle in.  The Eel River delta has some of the sweetest grass in California; in some meadows the grass grows all year long.  Some farmers are growing pot to keep ancestral lands intact; those who don’t are foundering.

What does this say for agriculture in California?  What does it say for the hope of turning the Sierra Valley into a vibrant agricultural center again?  What are the dairies going to do when pot is finally legalized, probably 2014?

Still some barns on the meadow

One thought on “The Fringe and the Eel 11/7/12

  1. Unfortunately, I actually underestimated the problem of dairies in California. See
    http://www.agalert.com/story/?id=4542
    and
    http://abclocal.go.com/kfsn/story?section=news/state&id=8810359

    A major California ag newspaper (I forget to get the name, I saw it in the feed store yesterday) has an article explaining how dairy farmers can decide when it’s time to liquidate ahead of creditors. Clearly, the answer for today is “grow pot.” It’s not, however, a long term strategy, and it’s no way for a society to build value for its food producers.

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