History of Bob Weimer Farms, the Next Generation of farmers, and SJV farming issues
July 30th, 2021 When pulling into Bob Weimer’s farm in Atwater, we were greeted with both a warm morning and smiles and the youth of a new crop season. First of the season was some Merced Rye for seed and green manure for the sweet potatoes. The harvesting cycle for their other crops starts with peaches, and eventually more: sweet potatoes, almonds, and walnuts.
The peaches have begun to ripen. The first week of harvesting starts with manual picking of the ripened fruit on the exterior of the tree and then 2 to 3 passes through the orchard with the picking crews for the remainder of the fruit. Mechanical harvesters aren’t the stars of harvesting on the farm – a vigorous shake of the tree would inconveniently drop all the fruit, even the unripe ones. The mark of success is in the hands of up to 100 employees (45 during the summer and near 100 during peak harvest) on Bob’s 1,100-acre farm. It’s a dance, the process of cycling employees throughout the crop seasons.
Yesenia Rocha, who wears lots of different hats on the farm, is a vital employee to the farm system due to her competent bilingual skills that are critical to the farm’s operation and migrant-worker management. She is described as an HR manager, organizer, and operational coordinator for Weimer Farms, but also an advocate for the employees, treating them with respect and ensuring employment laws are strictly adhered to. Her dad worked the peach and almond seasons before going back to Mexico between harvests. Her family used to stay at the Merced camp off Santa Fe while here on work assignments, and she attended school and learned English in Merced. Her family moved back to Mexico after she was eight before she returned to Merced as a freshman in high school. The Merced farmworkers have been working here for 40+ years. These past two years have been the only years they had to scramble to find people because the workforce is predominately older people phasing into retirement.
Yesenia and Bob note that there is a rigidity to farm laws that doesn’t allow flexibility of working conditions, even against the balance of the wants and needs of farmers, workers, and crops. The acceptance of migrant workers and a harmonious farm environment is an evolving topic. There’s a book called ‘Cultivating California’ that highlights the diversity of labor in California and to some extent crop diversity from the mid-1800s. The story is based on different nationalities and ethnic groups that worked in agriculture over these years – East Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanic – and discusses the origin of crops and their place in the San Joaquin Valley (SJV).
Their sweet potato harvest is soon approaching as well. Sweet potatoes, a warm-weather vegetable, have a full-year cycle; in August they’ll harvest, and by September they’ll begin storing (Image 1) and then market during the next 9 to 10 months. During this period, they begin the next crop by creating the slip beds (sweet potato tubers produce shoots called slips) in February and field planting between April and June. Harvest will commence about 90-120 days after planting. Not all sweet potatoes end up in the fresh market. The USDA’s #1 sweet potato makes its way to grocery stores, but some will end up either as French fries or as dog food; both markets are substantial, except for the price. The dog food market is on the tertiary, low-end side, meaning the products for this market are the sweet potatoes that are leftovers or don’t meet any salable standards. Selling for dog food provides little return value compared to the human-food market, but compromises are made when the seasons for selling and bringing in fresh storage overlap. The crop year overlaps and marketing the just-harvested crop we will be near-competing with the new crop.
The sweet potatoes develop a lush vine and leaf and will hopefully produce multiple, nicely shaped roots. Getting to this green point requires an involving and integrated approach. As the harvesting of the field is completed, the soil and plant material are disked to incorporate the residual plant material and then the Merced Rye Grain seeds are broadcasted onto the fields (Image 2); the grain will then go to head and the seeds will be recycled for next fall. In dry seasons, bob will pre-irrigate and then begin planting the crops with a bed of compost with February’s slip bed transplants. The drip irrigation flows through the center between the two planted rows and the moisture continuum allows for quick growth (Image 3). The plants will migrate toward drier conditions where they find optimum habitat throughout the growing season while the root mass accumulates underneath the drip tape where moisture stays. The roots mine and stay tangled in compost, holding everything together in a stable form, and munch on the compost during the season. In some years, some of their land will lay fallow and they’ll rotate out the beds for nematode, weed, and disease control.
The sweet potato has a long history of settlement here in California. Sweet potato cultivation is a small industry centered in Atwater, Livingston, and some in Turlock and Bakersfield; this is due to the region’s optimal soil and long, warm climate conditions, and sometimes water conditions. Sweet potatoes are thought to have arrived here sometime in the late 1800s with the Portuguese. And then the Japanese colonies in the early 1900s starting raising them, but this was mostly subsistence living and then some small-scale sales. The industry evolved over time to become more sophisticated to what it is today. Sweet potato research stations exist in the U.S. and around the world (in more tropical regions) to develop varieties that will perform well and have higher nutritional value. Bob, amongst his arsenal of farming knowledge, knows about Mendelian Genetics; he watches and admires the work of Dr. Don Labonte who conducts sweet potato research in a breeding program at Louisiana State University. Sweet potato research is a very tedious process – in the exclusion of GMOs – it involves consistent, rigorous testing in search of the one that meets all the crop’s standards.
Their conventional sweet potatoes are farmed almost completely like organics. On all their fields – organic or not – they extremely limit the use of herbicides. Weed control is primarily cultivation and hand-hoeing. Nematodes are the biggest issue that Bob faces. The nematodes attack the roots which stop the crop from growing well; they cause knots, and the crop will split and become gnarly and unmarketable. What they do is fumigate one time on their soil beds before planting, rest it, and then eventually move it into sweet potatoes – but you got to get the population down. They’re just destructive. There isn’t anything fast enough that eats nematodes and sweet potatoes are extremely susceptible. To manipulate around the problem, on their organic fields, they learned to rotate crops and alternate years in production.
Bob does a lot of the management. He has persevered through the past 30 years to create a synergistic system. Bob grew up in a farming family and was raised in a little house on the farm; the house is still standing and greeted us when we entered. He and his brother worked with their dad on a typical small farm of the time. One of Bob’s concerns is passing down the land and uniting a new generation into farming. What’s happening is the children will leave for other jobs or the cities and don’t come back to the farm anymore. Bob’s two girls and his brother Walt’s two boys are all successful in their own rights; they’ve become accustomed to business hours and not farm hours. Orchestrating, managing, and nurturing nature has become a lost intrigue for the newer generations. Farming is doable though – there’s more equipment so it’s less hard, physical labor and knowledge is more accessible.
Bob evolved the farm’s production into what it is today from his start at Cal Poly. He then moved to Washington State University where he did graduate work in Plant Pathology. He came back to Atwater, started a small manufacturing business in the 1980s, and with nobody doing irrigation work, he progressed into irrigation design, installation, and sales along with his side-farming production. He started selling irrigation products and the parts and harvesting kits for sweet potatoes. They worked through the times when they were transitioning from furrow and surface irrigation to sprinklers, micro-sprinklers, and then drip irrigation. He helped introduce drip irrigation in the county and specifically for sweet potatoes in 1989. It took him a few years to fumble around and test the product. They didn’t promote it though. Growers around the area observed and then within five years, they had growers doing drip irrigation. They promoted from the standpoint that it would make a poor farmer an okay farmer, and an okay farmer a good farmer, and everybody elevated up. He put things out there that were acceptable, accessible, and doable for farmers, and it was welcomed. As time went along, they raised sweet potatoes, got a little more land, and then progressed into their current production. In the last 40 years, there has been a notable evolution in irrigation methods – “Good changes,” he says.
Not only was Bob an early initiator in drip irrigation, but he eventually followed up with composting. In organic farming, everybody back then was using fish oil, soybean meal, and other products to come up with a nitrogen source. Fish oil was not pleasant. Bob started composting in the early days for nitrogen additions. He states in his experience, “Plant-material compost is good for organic material but has little food and nutrient value.” He began comparing different sources of compost and discovered the best one for sweet potatoes is poultry-based compost, which is a good source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Instead of broadcasting the compost, they arrange it in bands between the plant and then place the drip tape on top of the compost. Over time, the water drips through the compost, decomposes it, and then creates a nutrient-rich tea. The plant roots over the season colonize the compost band, essentially mining the compost. He now creates mass productions of compost on his lands with a recipe that works perfectly for the crops.
Looking at the future as a grower, farmer, and landowner, Bob understands the risks, hardships, and limitations of producing food in the SJV. Water is the key to the value of land. Bob remembers back in the ’60s in Merced County, there was something like 200,000 acres of non-irrigated pasture land supported only by annual rainfall. In 2020, 150,000 acres of that have been converted to irrigated farmland largely planted to permanent crops. Where did the water come from to develop this non-irrigated pasture? It came from underground, which now exceeds the natural recharge. Now farmers are facing the issue of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) that limits the amount of groundwater use. Bob states grimly, “If we don’t make changes now the whole area is going to be in deep trouble.” The groundwater basin on the east side of Merced County has now been given a priority-4 classification, which deems it a high-priority basin and the worst of the classification.
Bob looks at both agriculture and urban expansion as the contributors to water issues the valley has. An example involves the Delta-Mendota Canal, which was a federal water project provided in 1951 to help growers during drought years. In later years, because groundwater pumping went unabated, it caused land subsidence which is a non-reversible condition that causes millions of dollars in damage – damage that has gone unrepaired – and subsidence continues to appear throughout the SJV. Bob firmly puts, “The state isn’t as progressive as we think; we have archaic water laws. Water is not patrolled or monitored appropriately and we’ve witnessed that the state has addressed groundwater through SGMA but has left timeframes to achieve sustainability vague.”