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Only 11 miles away from a wildfire that has been raging for over a week, a blanket of ash covers strawberries ripe for harvesting.
“It’s like doomsday. At night we can see the fire, we feel it, and the ashes are constantly falling on us,” said Javier Zamora, owner of JSM Organics Farm in Royal Oaks, near Prunedale.
Despite the thick smoke, Zamora and his team of 35 farmworkers continue to harvest strawberries, and a variety of other berries, from 100 acres of land. At least, whatever is left of them.
Zamora says that about 60 percent of the picked berries are being thrown away. The strawberries that are under leaves or near the soil shielded from the ash are the only ones that can be resold.
“Nobody really wants strawberries and raspberries that have ash on them,” he said. “You can’t really wash the ash off, so they are not marketable.”
Adding to the farm’s problems is excessive heat. Historically, August temperatures in the foggy Central Coast average between 58-64 degrees.
“In the last few weeks, we have experienced temperatures in the 90s,” he said. “The raspberries and strawberries got toasted.” And the combination of high temperatures and fires have only added to the strain of working during a pandemic.
At the start of the year, Zamora, who mainly sells his produce to independently-owned restaurants and grocery stores and school districts, had anticipated a busy and booming season.
“This year we planted the most strawberries we ever had,” the grower said. “Then, the restaurants shut down and the school districts cancelled the orders.”
Needing to move the harvested berries and having fewer customers asking to fulfill orders, Zamora had no choice but to sell to processing plants at a tenth of the price.
All of these challenges do have a silver lining, though.
When Bay Area residents got wind of the farm’s excess fruit and financial situation from the pandemic they got creative.
From taking group orders in neighborhoods in San Jose, Palo Alto and Los Gatos to planning U-picks attracting families from San Francisco, Zamora says the resourcefulness and ambition of his customers was a big help.
One such customer is Mark Tuschman, a resident of Palo Alto and a documentary photographer. In 2019, Tuschman spent weeks on Zamora’s farms capturing the life of immigrant farm workers as part of a project to raise awareness, understanding and empathy towards immigrants. And spending time in the fields meant trying the fruit that was being grown.
“I started to taste his strawberries and I couldn’t eat any from anywhere else. Later, I would even drive down to buy berries,” Tuschman said.
When the pandemic hit and Tuschman, 76, wasn’t able to make the drive down to the farm, he devised a plan that would not only allow him to get a delivery of his favorite berries but also provide extra income for Zamora.
With the help of his neighbors and social media, Tuschman planned weekly bulk orders.
“The best week we had, I ordered 70 flats of berries. Then other people would come to buy, and they were interested in being their own distributors and I got two or three other people to do it. It was keeping (Zamora) in business,” said Tuschman. “First he only was going to charge me $30 (a flat) then I said he should charge $40 to make a profit.”
Tuschman plans to continue placing orders with Zamora until the berry harvesting season is over.
Zamora says he has been surprised by how well informed the community has been about the importance and impact of buying from a farmer rather than a grocery store.
“These are really difficult times,” he said. “Farming is really difficult but it also brings you a lot of hope knowing that there are a lot of people who believe in you and step up to the game and watch out for each other.”