As part of our @WORK series, we hear from a farmer in Davis, about what it’s been like working through a pandemic. About how COVID-19 has, and hasn’t, changed her world of farming.
Click the play button above to listen to the story.
Tess Kremer started working in agriculture about five years ago. Last summer was her first working as the CSA manager at The Cloverleaf Farm in Davis, California. The Cloverleaf is one of few organic farms in Davis. It mostly produces stone fruits: apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums and a small variety of other fruits like blackberries, raspberries, and melons.
Tess works on a four acre orchard, which she says is pretty small compared with other orchards in the county. Really big orchards in Davis and surrounding Yolo County can be hundreds of acres. But on that four acres, there are 27 different varieties of fruit. And a ton of work to do.
Tess gets up at 4:30 in the morning on work days. She goes outside to open her chicken coop, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and tries to get to the farm by 6 a.m., just when the sun is coming up over the fields.
She has to get there as early as possible, because of how overwhelmingly hot it is in Davis. In the summer, the average temperature is 95 degrees.
“I think the highest day we saw this year was 112 or 113,” she says.
The Cloverleaf Farm is a cooperative, and Tess is one of five owners. Once they all arrive, they have a quick morning meeting. They go over their plans for the day, and then they start picking fruit. They pick from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., take a 30 minute lunch under a shade cloth, and then they sort fruit.
“We sort fruit into three grades,” she says. “Perfect, semi-perfect, and uglies. And we just pack it all right into the boxes that we’re selling for people. We try to leave by 4 o’clock, which is a 10-hour day.”
“COVID hit in March when our farm was already shut down,” she says. “We weren’t selling anything. So we didn’t get that initial brunt impact of being in the middle of our season and not being able to sell any food.”
But some farms werehit hard by the pandemic.
“A lot, a lot of farms this spring were having really panic moments. ‘Oh my God, all the restaurants that I sell to are closing.’ People stopped coming to the farmers markets, and then all of a sudden, everybody just switched to a CSA model.”
CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. It’s when you pay farmers a lump sum of money to get produce delivered once a week.
“Because people didn’t want to go to the grocery store,” Tess says. “They just wanted to have a contactless pickup box of fresh local veggies.”
This increase in CSA subscriptions actually worked out well for The Cloverleaf farmers. That was one of the three ways that they were already selling their fruit. They also sell at farmers markets and to grocery stores.
Grocery store sales were almost completely unchanged for The Cloverleaf Farm. But farmers market sales? They changed drastically.
“The first week that COVID was happening,” she says, “I went to the farmers market in downtown Davis, and there were three booths, and it was completely deserted and empty. No one was there.”
Remember that part of the pandemic? When we still didn’t know how COVID-19 spread? When it wasn’t clear if masks were useful or not? When toilet paper was being price gouged on Amazon, and we were all rather rudely awakened to our dependency on supply chains?
“Nobody knew what was going on,” Tess says, “and I think it was a very odd reaction to rather go to the grocery store.”
Now it seems like farmer markers are mostly back in the swing of things. But Tess says it’s still complicated.
“Every booth has a different method of how they’re dealing with COVID. Some people are saying, 'Don’t touch anything, we’ll get everything for you.' Some people are saying, 'If you touch it you buy,' and then other places are doing nothing,” she says.
There are social distancing and sanitation guidelines for California farmers markets. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control are posted, and non-essential activities are prohibited. But that doesn’t mean customers always follow the rules.
“I was working at the farmers market,” Tess says, “and there was one customer who was wearing a mask, picking out some fruit, and then I had this young couple who was standing maybe five or six feet away from the booth. Their masks were underneath their noses, not fully on, and the one customer who was looking at the fruit yelled at them across the booth like, ‘Hey, you really need to put your mask on, you’re being disrespectful,’ etc. etc. And the younger people who weren’t wearing their masks started yelling back at this other lady saying, ‘Everybody, we’ve got Karen over here, Karen,’ blah blah blah, and then they started film recording one another, yelling at each other, over my booth about it. And one of the ladies was like, ‘Who’s in charge here? Where’s the farmers market manager? Where’s the info booth? Who’s in charge?’ And I was like, ‘Over there.’ You know? I was like, ‘You can go over there and talk to whoever you want, I am not involved in this situation.’ It was really intense.”
The pandemic hasn’t just revealed how dependent we are on our supply chains. It’s revealed how dependent we are on each other. On strangers. And on our friends, our family, and our farmers.
“Farming still continues you know? Humans have a relationship with the land and plants, and you can’t stop,” Tess says. “Everybody needs to eat, and the ecosystems are continuously moving, so you have to keep up with it.”