Buying from local farmers a win-win situation

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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I like to shop local. Besides saving at least 40 minutes roundtrip on the freeway, I’m doing my small part in helping the economy. And local small-business owners and their staff need us to help them succeed. That’s especially true for the Lincoln-area farmers who earn their livelihoods at fruit/vegetable stands and Farmers’ Markets. Do area farmers depend on Farmers’ Markets and roadside stands? “Absolutely, big time,” said Billie Jean Salle of Salle Orchards in Wheatland. “For the little farmers, that’s our sole income.” Salle organizes five seasonal Sierra Fresh Farmers’ Markets, three of which are in Lincoln. The Lincoln Village at Twelve Bridges’ market runs through Dec. 20, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mondays. The weekly downtown Lincoln market runs from June 10 through Aug. 26 from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. A new market opened Wednesday at Lincoln Hills at Orchard Creek Lodge and runs through Aug. 25 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays. “It’s hard today to be a farmer,” said Salle, who married a farmer 40 years ago. “There are so much restrictions and ‘mother, may I’ from government, state, county, everyone. And costs are much higher and our profit margin is less.” “Annual expenses are unpredictable,” Salle said, “from skyrocketing prices of fertilizer, water, fuel prices to unexpected equipment repairs.” “For us, because we pump from our wells, our cost of electricity is a couple of thousand dollars a month to irrigate,” Salle said. “We have wells but we still have to pump the water.” On bad workdays, Salle said, she would rather be a Walmart greeter “because then I know how much money I will earn and what I can plan to spend my money on.” But, as a self-employed farmer, she doesn’t have that option. For example, her family’s agricultural well broke two years ago and they were faced with a $22,000 repair bill. If they didn’t fix the well, their crops would have died and there would be no income that year. “Farmers in Placer County, unless someone has inherited property or grown up as a farmer, it’s hard,” Salle said. “You have the cost of the land, which is not cheap; the equipment; then you have to buy seeds, plants and trees. Each tree can cost up to $35. For a few acres, that’s a big chunk of change.” The number of Farmers’ Markets that Salle sells to during summer decreases from 10 to three by winter. “We don’t have as much to harvest. That time of year, you’re pruning, doing bookwork. With our walnuts, we get paid once a year and that has to last all year,” Salle said. “But you don’t know what Mother Nature will do or if your equipment will break down later.” William Morebeck, who represents the small-farm industry on the Placer County Agricultural Commission, agrees that farmers work hard for little monetary rewards. “Farmers don’t make a lot of money. They chuckle if you ask them about the money,” Morebeck said. “They have to produce a lot to make a decent living. Some do.” While the pay isn’t great for small-farm owners, the challenges are many. “The difficulty in farming is you have to become familiar and knowledgeable with what one wouldn’t expect,” Morebeck said. “You have to do a little bit of mechanical work, have a good solid knowledge of irrigation because, if you don’t have water, you can’t grow anything.” “Small farmers have to be cognizant of what’s in your area. We’re not wall-to-wall farms, we’re surrounded by critters and you have to work around that,” Morebeck said. “You have the issue of the weather. You have to know your area and what certain crops like and then adjust for it.” And there’s no guarantee that crops will survive, according to Salle. “If crops don’t work, do something else and hope something comes out of the next crop,” Salle said. Muang Saetern, who sells strawberries from April 15 to July at a stand off of Highway 193 near Sierra College Boulevard, has a 5-acre farm in Lincoln. She also has a stand off Highway 49 near Auburn. She has no employees; her husband, mother and sister help. Saetern’s either at the farm or at the stand, picking fruit and vegetables, fertilizing, pulling weeds to greeting customers, from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Growing up on a farm in Laos, Saetern said it’s harder to farm in the Lincoln area. “We have to use the water from the city or from the canal,” Saetern said. “In Laos, we didn’t have to use the water, we just used the rain.” For Saetern, the number of customers stopping at her stands depends on whether she makes a profit for the year. “It’s not that easy but it’s OK for me,” Saetern said. Why would anyone want to earn their money in this difficult job? “When you do good, you do great,” Salle said. “You get a high off it if you do great. I’m proud of our crops. We sacrifice going out at night but we’re our own boss. It’s really rewarding; I love it when someone says it’s the best we’ve had.” Morebeck calls being a farmer a lifestyle choice. “People do it for the thrill of seeing all the labor put in reach fruition and have someone buy it and like it,” Morebeck said. “A lot of farmers like to interact at the Farmers’ Markets. They get to see the benefits of all the work they’ve done that starts the year before as they build their soil, perhaps alternate their crops, buy seed ahead of time, put compost down, put cover crop down.” It’s a lot of work to run a small farm in Placer County. Lucky for us, though, who get to enjoy our neighbors’ just-picked fruit and vegetables. Carol Feineman can be eached at