September 11, 2014

Cliff McFarlin Organics

Cliff McFarlin on the farm

When Cliff McFarlin set out to find his place in the world, he chose to be a golf pro. But when his father called him back to the farm, Cliff became a 4th generation farmer. Later, when he secured his own land, he bought a grove of Valencia orange trees near Orosi, California. Cliff is up-to-date on the latest citrus varieties and research. As we drove around the orchard, he rattled off the different flavors, colors, and smells of the fruit he grows. For example, Cliff grows pomelos, which are believed to be the ancestor of the modern-day grapefruit. But he doesn't just grow pomelos; he grows several kinds. He especially likes a newer pink variety called Chandler. Have you ever heard of a Valentine? It's a cross between a pomelo and a blood orange. He grows those as well. Although it has not reached his area of California, Cliff was also up-to-date on the scourge of citrus greening.

Wherever citrus greening has appeared, citrus production has been compromised with the loss of trees. And there is no cure. Greening started killing Florida orange trees in 2005 and is now everywhere in Florida. Infected trees grow smaller fruit, which don't mature fully. About 95-98% of Florida groves are infected and over the course of a few years, these trees will slowly die. Cliff McFarlin is keeping a close eye on the spread of citrus greening in California.

Unfortunately, citrus greening is not an outlier as far as its disruptive capability. The prospects for pest control in general are diminishing. In Florida in 2005, citrus greening followed quickly on the heels of another citrus blight - citrus canker. That outbreak of citrus canker started in 1995, and after a 10-year eradication effort, the USDA declared that eradication was no longer possible. And a new study shows that the invasion of crop pests is accelerating. The study concludes,
More than one-tenth of all pests have reached more than half the countries that grow their hosts. If current trends continue, many important crop-producing countries will be fully saturated with pests by the middle of the century.

Enough about pests! Cliff supports his trees with drip irrigation and compost. The drip lines are suspended in the air to better keep them from coyotes and other animals. An additional benefit is that if there is a problem in the line, it is easier to spot. Cliff buys compost from True Organics and makes his own compost tea to spread around his trees. Although citrus predominates in his orchard, Cliff grows a lot of other fruit, including peaches, nectarines, apples, pluots, persimmons, apricots, grapes, peaches, pears, kiwi, pomegranates, plus grafted varieties. He grows 130 varieties in total.

Cliff makes use of several distribution outlets to sell his many varieties of fruit. As he describes the various markets, I realize that agriculture in California is a more mature industry than elsewhere. People are experimenting with smaller-scale and online distribution models. For example, at KMK Farms, they make use of The Farmer's Daughter CSA, which sounds like an online farmers' market. Cliff supplies produce to Abundant Harvest CSA, a similar, but much larger endeavor. They deliver produce from a couple dozen farmers to more than 5,000 customers at specific pickup spots in and around many areas of California. Cliff says Abundant Harvest pays him about 3 times as much as a packinghouse!

Cliff is also participating in what he calls an online farmers' market called Good Eggs. I would call it more of an online grocery store, since they also sell prepared and processed foods. Customers order what they want online. Then Good Eggs provides their farmers with an aggregate order from all Good Eggs customers, thus reducing time and waste. Good Eggs takes about 25-30% off the top, but they eliminate a lot of the administrative and logistical headaches of a traditional farmers' market. According to the Good Eggs website, they are all about sustaining local food systems. They are local in the San Francisco Bay area, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn. And they even deliver, if you live in the right neighborhood. Think about living in L.A. and not having to get in your car to buy fresh, locally grown food.

In total, Cliff told me that he participates in 5 farmers' markets. He has 3 or 4 employees, but he uses labor contractors as needed for weeding, pruning, thinning, and similar tasks. Cliff said that his organic certification enabled him to charge more for his fruit. but that using organic practices reduced his yields somewhat. All in all, he is breaking even financially. Here's hoping that profitability is just around the corner.

Cliff McFarlin Organics is certified organic. But at home, Cliff grows citrus trees using conventional methods. Typically, the folks that start their own organic farms do so for health and/or environmental reasons. Evidently this was not a motivating factor for Cliff. I wondered if he considered his farm sustainable. Farmers are some of the busiest people I have ever met. I met Cliff at his farm, but within 20 minutes he got a call. A work crew was on their way. It turns out that Cliff uses labor contractors. Since labor contractors have been known to engage in exploitative practices, I wondered if Cliff had seen any of that. But it was terribly hot, and he had to get some water over to these workers in short order. My questions about sustainability, labor contractors, the drought, and his tilling practices went unanswered, because I didn't have a chance to ask them.