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H&K Farms

Maceo Hart-Kapic of H&K Farms grows specialty mixed vegetables, small grains and livestock primarily at Gibson Ranch in Elverta, California. During the COVID pandemic, when sales to restaurants and through farmers markets all but disappeared, Hart-Kapic managed to grow his CSA business from 10 customers to about 100. But then came the drought. During the summer of 2021, he plowed under a field of wheat, restricted production to about a quarter of his land, and brought in a costly drip-irrigation system to keep his vegetable business alive. Recently, he sat on his truck’s tailgate in a shady corner of his farm and talked about the drought’s impact on his business.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the land here.

A: Gibson Ranch was a private ranch from statehood until the 1970s. Then in the early 70s, the County of Sacramento bought the ranch from the family that owned it, the Gibsons, and created a public park out of it. We lease the park. We’re one of two lessors, and we operate our farm here on the ranch, doing mostly organic (farming) and a lot of education and public engagement. That’s kind of the history of the land. It's been all livestock until the past 10 years, then we started doing more and more row crops here at Gibson Ranch.

Q: How many acres do you have?

A: We have 100 acres here, and then we farm another 50 acres spread out on four other sites. So we have five sites for 150 acres total.

Q: Normally, at this time of year, would you be growing crops on all 100 acres?

A: That was the plan, yeah. This is the first year of having a full year of production available, but with the drought, we’ve decided to restrict vegetables to only the prime ground and leave un-irrigated dry crops in the other ground that is less than prime. But in a typical year, we would have definitely had at least 50 percent of our land in production for the summer crops, and then the other 50 would have gone into production for the winter crops. But this year, it looks like what we’re going to do maybe, 25 percent summer and then 75 percent winter.

Q: What precautions did you have to take to mitigate the effects of the drought?

A: For us, we were coming at it from a proactive standpoint and mainly wanted to reduce our water usage. Even though we do have water available on this site, we wanted to make sure that we would have it available next year too, because it’s a ground water source. So we invested heavily in drip irrigation, and for that reason, we’ve only produced on a small amount of acreage, but mostly high-value vegetable crops. Where we would have flood-irrigated the vegetable crops, we decided to just wait and methodically plant in small acreage blocks, in order to keep it all drip irrigated, to be the most efficient with the water use.

We also did a lot of dry cropping with wheat, which we planted 30 acres. We didn’t harvest any of it for the grains, but we did bale up about 13 acres, and then we did have several acres that drought killed completely, that didn't even survive. What pasturage we had allocated in the winter to be irrigated summer pasture, we left completely fallow, with no irrigation. We grazed that down with a licensed grazer, who owns the cows. But for us, we barely get any return out of it because it’s dry and he has to supplement with feed.

It’s a chain. It affects everybody, not just us as a grower, but also the people that we work with.

Q: You’ve talked about the drip irrigation lines versus flood irrigation. What's the cost, in terms of money and time, of each of those?

A: The cost comparison is dramatic. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been only planting what is the most valuable crops for us, which are the specialty vegetables. It’s about $1,000 an acre to put in the drip lines from start to finish, and then we also have to remove them at the end of the season. It also limits kind of what we can do with cultivation in the field while the crop is growing. That’s a lot of expense per acre. Compared to flood irrigation, which would be somewhere on the scale of $50 to $100 an acre, with labor. So it’s a dramatic increase in the upfront cost, which limits how much production we can put in in the spring time. If we were able to flood irrigate, we would have had every piece of ground in production, but because we have to put in that high investment for the drip irrigation during planting, we’re going little by little by little until we get to the rains.

Q: How are you planning for the future, with the uncertainty of the drought?

A: We’re basically switching up a lot of crops and then saving and investing in water-conscious infrastructure. We’re planning more drip lines, overhead irrigation systems, sprinkler systems for the pasturage, so we can have summer irrigated pasture for cattle and also for growing hay for other livestock, without using flood irrigation. We’re being more water-conscious with that solution.

Then we’re just changing crops. One of the things we’re doing is multiplying a seed variety for an Italian heirloom cucumber that we’ve only put on two inches of water and we’ve already gotten the first crop. Next year, we should be able to do it with less water and get the same yield. That’s also a high-value crop, because it’s new, and it’s a low-competition crop. That’s what we're looking at — bringing in heirlooms and other varieties that are drought-tolerant, from Mediterranean climates, and then multiplying and saving the seeds and trying to use that genetic learning of the seeds to increase our drought resilience from year to year.

We’re also not betting as heavily on certain moisture conditions in the spring or fall for dry-crop wheat and such, and then also for spring tillage. We're also looking at planting earlier to try and capture some late spring rains, if there are any. So increasing or moving the planting times earlier, and then also trying to find new varieties that perform well in dry climates.

Q: As a small farmer, are there any resources available to you, to help with both education and mitigate the costs of some of these upfront advancements?

A: I’m aware of some grant programs through the federal and state departments of agriculture. There's EQIP and SWEEP, specifically for converting from flood irrigation to drip irrigation. That's one thing we are looking at, but it’s just about finding the time for writing it up. We do want to access some grant funding because it is a high cost to convert the acres to drip irrigation. We could convert all of our acres to it if we had the external financing, but it's just too cost-prohibitive for us to do it more than one or two or three acres at a time right now.

Q: Tell me a little bit about how COVID affected your business.

A: COVID affected us mainly by eliminating all other markets except home delivery of CSA — a Community-Supported Agriculture program that a lot of farms do. We do one, where you pay ahead of time and then receive a weekly delivery to your door, of a mixed bag of produce. Basically, that went from 10 customers to 100 during COVID. Then everything else — restaurants, other wholesale and the farmers markets — tanked.

The CSA program kept us afloat, but we weren't able to plant a whole lot of our ground at all. We planted probably like 30 percent of our total area. The rest, we tried doing some small grains in, but the drought put a damper on that. Then also, just not being able to find a lot of help on the farm during COVID, that was a big challenge. We’ve tried to figure out how can we do what we do, without hiring more people. Mechanization is what we’re looking at that. But it’s vegetables that we grow, so it’s still very human-scale, human-intensive labor for picking.

I think that COVID mainly affected us by eliminating what we could count on. We were able to get a lot of home delivery people, and that kept us going. I think we would have had to maybe rethink a lot of things if that hadn’t been the case.

Q: Has this been a double hit from COVID, and the drought?

A: Yeah. The wheat was a real killer. We’re behind on rent for this site because of that one crop. The biggest challenge is trying to figure out what to plant, because we gotta figure that stuff out six months to a year in advance. And so, now it’s “Okay, the restaurants ordered nothing last year, but now they're ordering five times more than they have ever before.” It’s like, "How much of what do we plant?" That’s really the challenge — planning and trying to figure out what people are wanting now, but also three months and six months from now.

Q: But you're still a full-time farmer, and you're dedicated to being a full-time farmer.

A: I'm not going anywhere any time soon. And I'm still a full-time farmer, luckily have been able to be a full-time farmer through COVID and still now, today. Even with the challenges of a tremendous amount of theft lately, which I don't know if that's COVID or what, but just a tremendous amount of theft.

Q: What kind of theft?

A: Mainly just equipment, equipment tampering, batteries, catalytic converters, trailers, stakes, culverts, actually. Every week almost it’s something.

Q: You have a unique partnership on this farm. You work with your Mother.

A: Yeah. My mom and I, we farm together. A few years ago, it was mainly her doing every day-to-day operation, while I was in college. And since I’ve graduated — been a year out from graduation — I've been day-to-day managing our operation, H&K Farms, and then my mother's the farm manager for Angel Wing Farms in Rancho Murieta and works full-time down there. She still works on our farm. She does our farmers market on Saturday. And we work together with the crop planning and the strategic planning of, "What am I gonna grow? What’s she gonna grow? And what are we gonna get from everyone else?"

Q: As small farmers, what do you need, to continue to navigate these climate changes and pandemics that are thrown your way?

A: I think what we need the most as small farmers is community support through financial institutions being willing to work with small farmers, that have highly diversified operations. Being able to have a financial partner that’s willing to work with your business can help you increase your diversity on farm, which then helps you increase your resiliency to different economic shocks. I think that's one big reason why we stayed where we were.

In addition, we need technical support to be able to access grant funding and resources that otherwise would be cost or time-prohibitive. And we need help just getting the word out to folks that farmers are still here, growing the same thing they’re growing all the time.

A big challenge is figuring out how we can get more into stable markets like school districts, retirement homes, assisted living facilities, and other institutions that are more insulated from economic shocks. If we could figure out a way to help small farmers — particularly small vegetable farmers — get their crops into larger, more stable markets, I think that would really help a lot of small farmers, instead of being reliant on just restaurants and farmers' markets which are highly volatile.

Q: What role do organizations like CAFF play, in all of this?

A: I think CAFF does a great job. I think CAFF’s extremely essential in the work that they do, particularly about how to advocate for small farmers and bring small farmers’ voices to local government agencies, the state government, multiple scales that they bring our voices to. But I think that without a dedicated organization such as CAFF, that understands the needs of small farmers, we would be in a far less better position than we are now.

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