Wildfires in California and Oregon were causing a wide range of problems for the produce industry in the first two weeks of September, from smoke creating adverse conditions for harvest crews, to closing roads and power outages in the Portland, Ore., area.
About 30 employees of Naumes Inc., Medford, Ore., lost their homes to fire in the southwest part of the state, said Robert Boggess, senior management executive, although the company’s facilities and guest worker housing were spared.
The Oregon Department of Forestry report that as of Sept. 17, 12 major fires were burning in the state and that a million acres have burned so far this year, nearly doubling the average acreage.
Naumes has about 1,600 acres of pears in the region and appeared to have escaped fire losses, although smoke delayed bosc harvest.
High winds that fueled multiple fires knocked pears and apples from trees, and the Washington Apple Commission reported overall production could drop 5% to 10% from the 134 million 40-pound boxes estimated at the U.S. Apple Association’s annual crop conference Aug. 21.
“Since the time of the initial estimate, extreme windstorms, wildfires on the West Coast, and more accurate reporting of crop load on the trees as harvest progressed, suggest a lighter total crop volume for the 2020-21 apple harvest,” according to a news release from the Washington Apple Commission.
At Fall Creek Farm & Nursery Inc., Eugene, Ore., many employees were evacuated from their homes, and some lost their homes, co-CEO Cort Brazelton said. Power losses challenged the ability to keep research and development plant material protected, he said.
At one point, the Holiday Farm Fire, which had burned more than 170,000 acres as of Sept. 17 and was only 8% contained, came near to Fall Creek Farm & Nursery facilities.
“The Fall Creek team has done a fantastic job coming together both to solve the immediate operational and business issues while also coming together to take care of their colleagues in the Fall Creek family.”
Phuc Kenny Ngo, director of operations of the Portland Division at Pacific Coast Fruit Co., said inbound products coming from Interstate 5 have been affected. Restaurants, which continue to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, are seeing the loss of outside seating, which had been a way to seat more patrons while following social distancing measures.
Soot and particulates in the air dropped visibility significantly, Shay Myers, CEO of Parma, Idaho-based Owyhee Produce, said Sept. 16.
“... It is a really thick haze, with the resemblance to something like fog except for it falls out of the sky and coats everything with a layer of ash,” he said.
The nearest fires to Owyhee Produce were more than 100 miles away, he said, but skies had been hazy for going on 10 days by Sept. 16.
Still-growing sweet potatoes have been slowed by hazy skies. Onions are now being cured in the field before they are collected to be put in storage. Myers said the haze and lower temperatures have slowed that process.
“With the lack of sunshine, and with the significantly lower temperatures, we are not getting the normal drying action for onions that we would like to see this time of year,” he said.
Myers estimated that perhaps 5% of the onions are harvested and in storage in the Treasure Valley of Idaho-eastern Oregon, which is close to normal.
“Normally right now this would be our first heavy week,” he said.
However, continued hazy skies could add days to harvest by slowing the process of drying the onions and putting them safely under cover, he said.
California lettuce issues
Richard Smith, Monterey County vegetable crop farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, said the fires are mostly out in the county and air quality is improving.
Fires didn’t burn vegetable fields, he said, and while growers did have some complaints from buyers about ash on romaine leaves, Smith said all growers were “in the same boat” and nothing could be done to avoid that issue.
While there was some concern about lack of growth in plants from hazy skies, he said that worry seems to have passed.
Vegetable production will shift to the desert in Southern California and Arizona beginning in mid-October to early November, he said.
From early to mid-September, however, Salinas Valley saw an “explosion” of virus and disease issues, according to a Markon Cooperative alert it e-mailed to members Sept. 16.
Some iceberg and romaine lettuce fields saw yields drop 20% to 50%, according to the e-mail. Harvest crews were heavily trimming heads to cull defects.
As the cull rate grew, harvest crews moved through fields faster.
That could affect the remainder of the Salinas season, according to the company.
Naumes Inc. owners Mike and Lauren Naumes set up an emergency fund for employees that the company contributed to directly, Boggess said. The Naumes Family Foundation donated $100,000 to charities supporting fire relief efforts in the region.
The company is accepting donations of clothing, bedding and food at its office.
“Our lobby here at our corporate office looks like basically looks like a secondhand store,” Boggess said. “We just have piles of piles and racks and racks (with clothes), and people just can come in and take what they need.”
In California, the CCOF Foundation, Santa Cruz, Calif., funds disaster relief for organic growers through its Bricmont Hardship Assistance Fund, which has already seen staggering demand because of the pandemic. The foundation expects the fires to significantly increase the need.
Donations can be made online at www.ccof.org/foundation/donate.
News editor Chris Koger and retail editor Ashley Nickle contributed to this article.