What Does it Mean to Lose Power on a Farm?
For many California farmers, it means potentially losing everything.
by Carine Hines of Guinda, CA
originally appeared in the New York Times on October 24, 2019
all photos by Max Whittaker for The New York Times
Less than a year ago, while my husband and I were picking lettuce, a hot dry wind brought a cloud of smoke over my farm here in the Capay Valley. The wind didn’t die down, and neither did the smoke. For weeks afterward, we harvested produce while covered in the ashes of California’s most deadly wildfire. We cried for the dead, gave thanks for our own survival, and adjusted to a new California reality: Fire will always be knocking at our door.
Two weeks ago, another hot, dry wind blew over our farm, but this time it brought a different sort of problem. Saying it feared gusts that might topple electricity poles and set off fires as they did last year, Northern California’s main utility provider, PG&E, turned off power to millions of its customers.
What does it mean for a farmer to lose power? For many of us, it means potentially losing everything.
My husband and I have a small vegetable and pastured poultry farm. We are just finishing our fourth year of working the land. Like many of our neighbors in this rural valley, we get our water from a well that is run by an electric pump. When we know the power will go out, the first thought is always water.
Several times this summer, when high winds were forecast, we woke up at odd hours to water our crops and livestock, fill tanks with water and do our best to prepare for a power failure. We don’t have the money to buy and set up a diesel generator big enough to run our well, walk-in cooler and freezers.
We could, and will, apply for grants to subsidize the installation of solar panels, but that takes time — something farmers have little of. Even with solar panels, we would still need expensive batteries or a complicated interchange between generator and solar panels; the sun doesn’t shine at night but the cooler needs to be cold around the clock during a 110-degree summer day.
This summer our farm was not ready for the power to go out. Luckily, this year’s power outages were short enough that we were only inconvenienced, and we did not lose all our crops and animals. We cannot count on this luck in the future. Next year, we will have to spend money we don’t have to make sure we don’t lose our entire business to a windy week.
For a larger farm, such as our neighbors at Riverdog Farm, the power outage endangered not only the livelihood of its owners, but also that of its many employees. A large farm can’t be without power for even an hour. Crops must be irrigated and harvested, animals watered, freezers and coolers kept cold and offices run. Tim Mueller, one of Riverdog’s owners, had to rush to rent an expensive generator to power just the bare minimum of their business. The time and resources it takes to plan for a power outage adds a huge burden to an already full load.
We are thankful that PG&E is taking steps to prevent the wildfires that their power lines can cause. I’d trade my farm in a heartbeat if it meant saving even one of the lives lost in last year’s fires. But it is not sustainable to damage agriculture, one of California’s most important yet most financially struggling industries, every time the wind blows. Farmers and rural communities rarely get more than lip service from business executives and politicians.
So what is the solution? I’m not a utility expert, but I can tell you what a farmer hopes for.
The most obvious solution would be for PG&E to bury electrical lines in rural areas. This would keep power flowing to farmers no matter the weather, while reducing the risk of wildfires. Also, the California Public Utilities Commission needs to to be more than just a handslapping agency. Instead, it should force PG&E to update its electrical infrastructure, some of which was built in the 1900s.
Right now there is no financial incentive for PG&E to reach out to the far corners of California and rebuild its electrical grid, because it is expensive and doing so would not increase their profits. When a fire burns everything down, California taxpayer dollars pay to bail out a private company that should be public.
It took two staggering years of wildfires, $30 billion in liability costs and huge power outages for the utilities commission, politicians and economists to even discuss making parts of PG&E publicly owned. Working-class farmers in California would like a utility provider that has our best interests at heart, not their investors’ profits.
Farmers in California are on the front lines of climate change: We manage water during intense drought and heat, we salvage fields and livestock during floods and we spend months harvesting food for this country while breathing in the ashes of forests, homes and victims. We need government help to make our farms able to withstand this capricious climate, and to help us change our practices so we can farm in a way that fights climate change, while still being economically viable.
Three times a year, PG&E spends a couple of days cutting back the branches of the native valley oaks that grow under the power line along my neighborhood’s road. This spring, PG&E asked if it could cut the trees down entirely. This avenue of oak trees, some over 100 years old, could be gone in a day. Cutting down oak trees and turning off the power are short-term solutions with long-term effects. Are we so shortsighted that we cannot spend the extra dime now to protect California’s people and ecosystems for generations to come?
Infrastructure overhaul is expensive and time-consuming, but the last time I checked it was one thing people from both sides of the aisle agreed on.
Mrs. Hines is the co-owner of Sun Tracker Farm.