Storms, floods a massive challenge for Santa Cruz farmers — but farm bureau chief says they’re up to it

Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Jess Brown has led the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau for the past four decades, a time that’s seen the organization through many state and national firsts, including being the first to have cannabis growers as members. But 2023 might be among the most challenging years for local growers in a while. In an interview with Laura Sutherland, Brown says the failure of the Pajaro River levee is the worst flooding he’s seen in more than 30 years.

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It’s not surprising that the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau has seen many state and national firsts — it’s Santa Cruz, after all, where thinking outside the box and progressive attitudes are the norm. It was the first farm bureau to have organic farmers on its board, first to have a female board president, and the first to have cannabis growers as members, just for starters.

It’s an organization Jess Brown knows well, having been at the board’s helm for the past four decades. And the local agricultural community has seen few challenges as daunting as those 2023 has presented so far. Recent storms and the failure of the Pajaro River levee resulted in the worst instance of flooding he’s seen in more than three decades.

The floods certainly affected some farmland, he says, though the full extent of the damage will not be realized until the water is out of the area. “But it is very devastating for the people who live in Pajaro and have businesses there,” he said.

There is a substantial amount of water still sitting on farmland, and the concern over damage is very real. Brown recalls when the Pajaro levee failed during winter storms in 1995. A layer of silt blanketed a large portion of the agricultural land, which needed to be removed in order for the land to be farmable again. “We don’t know if that’s going to happen again,” he said.

The flooding is a big blow to farmworkers in the short term, Brown adds. Workers in the region’s berry industry will likely have to try to find jobs on other farms not affected by the floods. “So whether they can get on another crew for other farms is unseen, but there is definitely an immediate impact for them,” he said.

As the fields dry out, though, Brown says growers will need workers to help repair and replenish the land, which could provide jobs for those out of work.

Brown’s agricultural experience started shortly after he took his first steps. “My dad came from three generations of newspaper people,” the executive director said, “but for some reason, he had a passionate desire to be a hog farmer.”

The family ended up in Riverside County, where they had plenty of land. “My brothers and sisters and I were the laborers — there was no hired help — so we did everything,” Brown said.

Joining 4-H at age 8 launched Brown into showing hogs. Over the years, he became deeply involved in the group, honing his skills in organizational development and taking on leadership roles there and in high school.

Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Shortly after he graduated from college at UC Riverside, Brown noticed that the Santa Cruz Farm Bureau was advertising for an executive director. The bureau had been around since 1917, but while it had employed clerical staff, it never had an executive director. Brown applied and was hired.

“It was an exciting moment to be involved,” Brown said, “and because I was so inexperienced, I really wasn’t restricted by past traditions or practices.”

Back then, agricultural land wasn’t protected. In 1978, Santa Cruz County voters passed Measure J, which identified the value of agricultural land by soil type and set land use policies in the county. Since then, the measure has helped protect agricultural land, and organizations such as the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County have worked to protect agricultural land by compensating farmers for development rights.

The late 1970s also saw farm bureaus in California pressured by big grocery chains to not embrace farmers markets, which they saw as competition. Santa Cruz was the first in the state to encourage them. The county is home to California Certified Organic Farmers, one of the first organic certifying agencies, and as of 2020,147 certified organic farms.

“Today farmers markets are everywhere, but they were just starting to become popular back then,” Brown said.

Organic farming in Santa Cruz County “continues to be a solid part of the business,” Brown said. Even more interesting, he adds, is how organic farming has spread from small farms run by people who are passionate about the philosophy behind it, to larger companies and more conventional farmers adding organic to what they do. “They realize that consumers want it,” he said.

An important related issue in local agriculture is the safety of pesticide sprays — particularly around schools and neighborhoods. Brown acknowledged the issue, noting that California is moving to adopt new regulations that will notify the public in advance about pesticide applications.

Strengthening the connections between the Santa Cruz County community and the agriculture with which it’s so intertwined has been a focus for the farm bureau since the 1990s. Aiming to provide better learning opportunities about local agriculture for the Santa Cruz community, it set up a nonprofit partner organization called Agri-Culture.

Among other things, the nonprofit operates Focus Agriculture, an award-winning nine-month program for community leaders to learn about a broad spectrum of agriculture. “It was the first program of this type in the nation and it’s been much copied,” Brown said.

The bureau also has 16 endowed funds that do things like provide scholarships for students pursuing agriculture as a career or help with farmworker housing.

During the height of the COVID pandemic in 2021, the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau notched another national first when Dominican Hospital asked the organization to help set up vaccinations for farmworkers.

A partnership between Dignity Health and the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau got thousands of farmworkers vaccinated.
A partnership between Dignity Health and the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau got thousands of farmworkers vaccinated in early 2021 as COVID vaccines were just rolling out.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The bureau set up a vaccine center in two days at Casserly Hall in Watsonville and in the first week vaccinated 1,000 farmworkers. Farms provided transportation and paid time off, and over the next few months the clinic vaccinated 8,000 more workers. “We were the first in the United States to do this,” Brown said.

“The adaptability that helped make that program so successful is built into the ag community, and that’s what allows it to be successful,” he added. “Think about it: Weather is unpredictable, crops have problems that need to be resolved quickly and farmers have to be flexible, versatile and resilient — it’s just what they have to do.”

Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, and Nita Gizdich, holding one of her apple pies.
Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, and his longtime friend Nita Gizdich holding one of her apple pies.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If you look at the farm bureau’s board of directors list today, you’ll see a commodity next to every name — berries, apples, livestock, organic vegetables, bees, timber, cannabis. It’s a round-robin of much that Santa Cruz produces with the people who produce it. In 2021, Santa Cruz county farms brought in $652 million. Berries make up 60% of that figure.

Any size farm can request membership in the organization. “We have everyone from small egg businesses and single greenhouses growing herbs to a grower who manages 1,500-2,000 acres in separate parcels around the county,” noted Brown.

“Forty years ago when I first joined the farm bureau I told myself that I’d stay at the job as long as it would be exciting,” he said. “And it’s been exciting ever since.”