How the 2023 Winter Floods Put Our Family Farmers Under Water
Your favorite spring strawberries might arrive a little late this year, after an extremely wet winter.
By Becky Duffett
On the morning of January 9, Javier Zamora of JSM Organics woke again to the sound of rain. It had been coming down hard since right after Christmas, building into the weather event we now all know and call an atmospheric river. From the top of the hill where his house sits, he could see gleams of water on the acres below. He hopped in his truck, started winding down the road, and got a better view of the damage.
“I saw almost a full lake,” Zamora says. “I was like, ‘Holy chorizo.’”
The Carneros Creek had overflowed its levees and poured through the flat fields. Zamora reports 32 out of his 72 farmable acres flooded, putting more than a third of his farm under water. JSM is known for their Chandler strawberries, a special hybrid that’s a little more fragile to grow and ship, but exceptionally sweet and flavorful. Seven acres of those prized strawberries stood in water for weeks. Zamora estimates each acre costs about $18,000 to put the plants into the ground, then the fruit yields between $50,000 and $70,000 in revenue. He’s looking at a total loss of at least a quarter million dollars. But the rain hasn’t stopped – his farm flooded again with the next round of storms on March 11, and water is still flowing through his fields at the time of writing.
More than strawberries, Zamora says the hardest part to stomach is the impact on people. His crew wasn’t able to work until the end of January, nearly a full month without wages. “None of them worked at all,” he confirms. He employs a crew of up to 48 people in summer, which drops down to 16 in winter. Some farm workers can apply for unemployment benefits through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where the line ran long at the Watsonville location. But many aren’t eligible because of their citizenship or immigration status. With few other options for work in winter, “How can we feed them?” Zamora poses.
SEEPING ACROSS THE COUNTY LINE
That same day, about 25 miles away, Maria Catalán of Catalán Family Farm was also watching the rain. She and her son Juan were trying to move equipment to higher ground. Juan was in the barn struggling to lift a couple of compressors when a flash flood swept through.
“It was like a river coming through the side of the barn,” Juan says. “Within 10 minutes, it was coming in harder, higher, and faster. It was kind of scary.”
They abandoned their equipment. “The water was rising too fast,” Juan says. “We had to get out of there.”
When the Pacheco Creek flooded, San Benito County issued an emergency evacuation of the area, rescuing 23 people and 16 animals. When the Cataláns were finally allowed to return a couple of days later, their gravel roads were completely washed away. The farm was strewn with trash, and unexpectedly, apples from an orchard up the road. Maria estimates six out of 41 acres flooded, some planted with vegetables, others storing equipment. That destroyed certain late winter crops, rotting kale, chard, and beets, while stunting the growth of some early spring crops, including garlic, favas, and peas. As feared, equipment was waterlogged, totaling a forklift, two generators, and two compressors. They’ve already sunk $12,000 into trying to fix two tractors. Maria estimates the equipment damages alone start at $100,000, and that could more than double if they have to buy new tractors. After that first flash flood, the farm flooded a second time in January and third time in March, washing away their efforts to clean up.
Additionally, Maria was living in a trailer home right next to the farm. Her trailer and all of her personal belongings were destroyed. For the first few days, she was staying in an emergency shelter with other flood victims. At the time of writing, she’s still staying in an apartment provided by the county for the next six months, while she figures out her next move.
FLOWING THROUGH THE REGION
Both JSM Organics near Watsonville and Catalán Family Farm near Hollister fall within the Central Coast, a region pummeled particularly hard by these winter storms. Nonprofit Kitchen Table Advisors (KTA) supports small farms and ranches across Northern California, so they have an overview of the crises, from northern winds ripping through hoop houses to higher elevations facing unexpected frost. “The Central Coast region was the most impacted by water this winter,” confirms director David Mancera. “But all regions were impacted in one way or another.”
Of course, farmers want rain, just not too much. Compared to the recent years of drought and wildfires, Mancera explains how flooding presents a unique set of challenges: When farmers can’t even access their land, work grinds to a halt. It takes additional time to clean up and restart motors, especially for organic farming, when farmers may have to retest the soil. Winter crops might be damaged or destroyed, while spring plantings may be delayed. He emphasizes the timing, hitting right at the start of the season, making it a struggle to get off the ground. “Which then impacts whatever crop plan and cash flow you had planned out for the year,” Mancera says. “It’s a domino effect.”
More farmers have been asking Kitchen Table Advisors about insurance options in recent months. Mancera says there is no insurance product specifically for flooding, but he recommends a couple of more general safety nets, including Whole-Farm Revenue Protection from the USDA. “Most farmers don’t buy it,” Mancera says. “It’s an additional expense, and they think, ‘this won’t happen to me.’” But he believes it may become an essential cost of doing business, as we continue to see extreme weather events.
With the most recent round of March storms, KTA reports that many farms that had previously flooded went under water again, while a new wave of farms experienced floods for the first time. Only seven miles north of Catalán, the Los Viboras Creek gushed into Oya Organics in Hollister, known for their wide range of beautiful vegetables. Another flood hit Los Pinos Organics in San Juan Bautista, a small farm of only nine acres that sometimes wholesales through Coke Farm, a name you might have spotted at Bi-Rite. Further west the Pajaro River broke its levees, devastating the town of Pajaro, home to many farmworkers, as reported by the , the , and national outlets. Governor Gavin Newsom has , and with more storms anticipated, the damage remains ongoing.
MOVING ONWARD AND UPWARD
JSM sometimes has Chandler strawberries as early as Valentine’s Day, but this year Zamora says the fans will have to wait until Cinco de Mayo. He’s rethinking his strategy and moving the Chandlers to higher ground. The irony is the bottom of the hill cultivates the richest clay soil, which “grows the best veggies ever,” he says, but that comes with the highest flood risk. Catalán might skip over certain spring crops entirely, so Maria can prioritize her favorite summer tomatoes, chiles, and squashes, “in all the different shapes and colors.” She’s considering moving her whole farm, a painfully expensive process – it took several years to get their current soil to this quality level. But similarly, it’s a tough trade off – while they get plenty of water during drought, the flood risk seems too great in rain.
“It’s just hard. It’s an eye opener,” Juan says. Maria has been meeting with other flood victims, and many voice frustrations with the county and cite similar flooding in 2017.
“We have to try to look at other options. The people here, they keep mentioning, this happens all the time.”
Both farmers hope guests will understand when their favorite spring strawberries or tomatoes arrive a little late this year. Zamora prays people will remember where their seasonal fruits and vegetables come from, especially following a relentlessly cold and wet winter. When a shopper picks up a strawberry in April, he put that plant in the ground in November, and it’s a long process to get to market. “More than just food, you’re supporting a small farmer,” Maria says, as translated by Juan. “Those tomatoes are grown with love. We care for every plant, plant by plant. We don’t have thousands of acres. We don’t have a lot.
“But if you’re buying one of our tomatoes, it comes from a small farm, family, and community. We appreciate your support.”
In the meantime, JSM Organics flowers, Catalán Family Farm broccoli, and Oya Organics veggies are available in both Bi-Rite Market’s produce department.
Becky Duffett is a food writer living and eating in San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram at @beckyduffett.