Feb 5, 2021
California’s Riverdance Farms finds success with farm-visiting crowd
Crystal Nay

Like most small-to-medium farms across the country, Riverdance Farms in Livingston, California had to – and still is – navigating the new farm business landscape in this COVID-19 era.

Consumer demands have undoubtedly changed, some markets have altogether disappeared, and prices to growers have fallen, but Cindy Lashbrook and husband Bill Thompson, co-owners of Riverdance Farms, have flowed with the changes, adjusting their farm’s marketing and operation as they see necessary.

Everything grown at Riverdance is organic and has been since the 1990s, when the farm was purchased. The couple added to it with the adjacent property in the early 2000s. Sixty of the 74 acres are actively farmable, with, as Lashbrook said, the remaining acres belonging to the river.

“We’ve taken some land out of production and expanded the riparian habitat,” said Lashbrook. She has also put in more native plants and a pond.

The farm features an assortment of fruits, vegetables and nuts. Since the land has varying topography in California’s rather flat Central Valley, and varying soil types, Lashbrook has customized her plantings according to where they would grow best, as well as what pick-your-own enthusiasts enjoy.

Organic u-pick

 Riverdance Farms is great for families, kids and teens. Even in the off season, U-pickers can still pick persimmons, or enjoy a picnic or time by the river. Photo: Crystal Nay

Appealing to U-pickers has become a priority for Riverdance. Lashbrook has seen a decrease in prices for what processors, wholesalers, and other markets are willing to pay for produce and nuts, with some of them going out of business altogether.

Lashbrook’s walnut purchaser was unable to make its final payment for 2020, and the drop in price for blueberries meant she was in the market for a new buyer. A community-supported agriculture (CSA) organization went out of business four days after Riverdance Farms made its delivery, and another CSA Riverdance supplied went under the year prior. Riverdance Farms has had to absorb these costs.

“We’ve had a lot of dings – a few thousand here, a few thousand there – that we were expecting to come in and they just evaporated,” Lashbrook said. “It’s not just because of COVID, but also trade agreements and other companies’ marketing efforts during COVID.”

The usual battles

Coping and maneuvering around the new challenges COVID posed comes in addition to the usual pest management challenges on an organic farm. Riverdance is surrounded by pollinator plants to bring in natural enemies to pests and hosts many insectivorous birds.

Fluctuating prices and COVID shutdowns helped Riverdance Farms gain more attention from U-pickers. The farm plans to add crops to extend the picking season. Photo: Riverdance Farms

“We have a (natural) crew to work with, so we don’t want to disrupt it too much,” said Lashbrook. “But sometimes it just isn’t enough.”

The farm may do one or two organically-approved sprays in the spring for the cherries, which, Lashbrook said, is the most of anything that has been sprayed in quite some time. When spotted wing drosophila first appeared and was invasive, it destroyed half of Riverdance’s cherry crop. This year, there has been a slight uptick in worm damage in the walnuts. With the majority of the Central Valley being planted with tree nuts, Lashbrook acknowledges that the surrounding conventionally-grown orchards could bring her more problems as she becomes less and less island-like with her crop.

“We have to monitor more now,” said Lashbrook.

Tackling the imported red fire ant is next on the list for strategizing a control method. Though Riverdance has never used out-of-state bees for pollination, the ants made an appearance after the county began placing traps.

“Ten years or so ago, [the county] first started monitoring for it and leaving stuff around, so they might have accidentally brought [the imported red fire ant] with them. And the ants are happy to be in our fairly sandy soil without much disruption, so that’s something that’s difficult to manage with biocontrol,” said Lashbrook.

A few different options have been deployed on the farm to varying degrees of success, including boiling water, diatomaceous earth, baits, spinosads, and others. Lashbrook continues to research additional organic-friendly options, with a d-Limonene-based product next on her list.

Labor is another complication. Not only is labor limited, it is costly. Wage requirements are increasing while prices farmers get for their harvests are decreasing.

“As we have to pay a dollar or more an hour each year for labor, which I’m happy to do, the price to us for our products has been going down each year, so it’s getting very difficult to balance,” said Lashbrook. “We always try to pay a couple dollars over minimum wage anyway, but that’s getting harder to do.”

The year ahead

Riverdance Farm
Photo: Riverdance Farms

Planning for 2021 comes with two different sets of plans – one if coronavirus restrictions are lifted, and one if they aren’t. Every year, Riverdance hosts the family-friendly, weekend-long Annual Pick and Gather Festival, where visitors can pick organic produce, camp, fish, participate in crafts and games, geocaching, kids’ science classes, food preservation classes and more. The event usually brings in over 1,200 visitors and Lashbrook hopes the festival can return in 2021, but is preparing to go without it. The 2020 event was cancelled, but U-pick reservations were made available.

The reservation system proved a smart choice. Riverdance has been able to serve the needs of people wanting better quality food and to explore safe outdoor areas in a state with frequently changing stay-at-home orders. Not only that, but for a farm like Riverdance – too big for smaller markets, but too small to entertain buyers from major operations – the happy middle ground lies in gaining the attention of those wanting a recreational outdoor experience.

Because of this, Lashbrook plans to make Riverdance’s offerings increasingly more diverse, including more stone fruit to stretch the U-pick season. This way, there’s almost always something to pick, she said.

Lashbrook also hopes to get her organic goods directly into the hands of consumers via Barn2Door, and is considering forming a farm membership where members can visit the farm and participate in a variety of activities, including pick food, picnic, garden, and camp.

“I love people who love to be here; it makes me happy. If I can find more ways to have people come pick their own or pick up their own, and possibly even have a community garden plot of their own, we might work something like that out,” said Lashbrook.

Crystal Nay is Western Editor for Organic Grower magazine and managing editor of National Nut Grower magazine.

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