Food Safety & Wildfires Case Study: Brisa Ranch

Key Details:

Location: San Francisco bay area , near Pescadero 

Acres in Production: 16

Main Crops: Fruit, vegetables, flowers 

Wildfire: CZU Complex in 2020

3rd Party Audit(s):  USDA Harmonized GAP

Certified Organic by National Organic Program: Yes

Owners: Cristóbal, Cole, Verónica

Brisa Ranch was started in 2018 by Cristóbal, Cole, Verónica – three friends that originally met at Pie Ranch in 2015. Since then, Cole and Verónica have gotten married and all three still run the business. They grow a diverse amount of over 40 different types of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. They lease land at three different locations, all near Pescadero, California. Their main marketing channels include a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and wholesale sales. They have five full time equivalent employees and some part-time staff during peak times. 

Tragically, in mid-August 2020 they were affected by the CZU Complex wildfire. The fire started on August 16th in the hills above their farm. They had about 24 hours from when the fire first started before it got to their property. The fire had to travel downhill to get to their farm. During the time before the fire got to their property they used their tractors and implements to make 10-12 foot wide fire breaks around the exterior of their property. They used water in their pond on-site to irrigate the fire breaks and fight spot fires that started inside of their fire break. Once they lost power they used a generator to run limited irrigation on crops and only through drip lines. They didn’t have much water left so they switched all crops that were on overhead irrigation to drip. 

They lost some equipment that was within the fire break due to melting from the constant exposures to the higher heat. There ended up being 5-6 days of active fire fighting on/near their farm property and six weeks of putting out spot fires. Oftentimes they put out spot fires with five gallon buckets of water. Due to the farm being in a more rural and remote area, it took about four days from when the fire initially started to when there was a firefighter presence near their farm. 

After the initial fire suppression, the team worked on setting up a new generator run irrigation system that only used drip tape. They made real time decisions on abandoning certain crops and focusing instead on trying to save longer harvest season crops such as peppers, tomatoes, and dahlias. These crops initially suffered damage and dropped flowers, but after starting to get irrigation again, temperatures returning to more “normal” levels, and time – they all recovered to some extent and provided future harvests.

They ran multiple generators 24/7 to power irrigation, the well that provided the water they washed crops with, and their walk-in cooler. From a food safety standpoint, they were still able to keep all crops refrigerated, washed, and handled according to their high standards. Brisa Ranch went through their first 3rd Party Audit in 2020 because they participated in the USDA’s Farm to Food Box Program (a COVID-19 response program) and needed the certification to sell to the program. Since the program didn’t continue in 2021 and onward, they decided to drop paying for the 3rd Party Audit Certification (upwards of $4,000 a year), and continue to practice the same high quality food safety approach. 

The farmers and firefighters worked tirelessly for those weeks and in the end Brisa Ranch was able to save most of their main building infrastructure, tools, and crops. The Brisa Ranch farmers have some suggestions for how farmers and policymakers could help farmers in the future minimize wildfire damage:

  1. One important suggestion they have for helping farmers navigate future wildfires is to provide Ag Passes that allow farmers to travel back and forth through mandatory evacuation areas. Crops, livestock, and other essential farm (and community) resources often need to be carefully tended to during evacuations. 
  2. Help coordinate more collaboration between other land managers (BLM, State and County Departments that manage land) and farmers. Farmers are land managers and should be invited to work with these other agencies. 
  3. There should be a new state program that provides farmers the opportunity to apply to get a no/low-cost generator(s) to help farmers weather frequent power shut offs due to threat or actual wildfire.  

Through quick on their feet decision making, weeks of long hard work, and support from the community Brisa Ranch was able to navigate that incredibly difficult wildfire experience. They were able to maintain food safety best practices due to using a generator to pump groundwater to wash produce and keep their cooler running, to name a few examples. They made tough decisions to abandon some crops that were not possible to save or keep. If you’re a farmer reading this, hopefully this article has provided some helpful tips for you in preparing for a worst case wildfire scenario. If you’re a policymaker reading this, please provide farmers with Ag Passes and training for how they can be set up and used. 

This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number USDA-NIFA-FSMA-2020-70020-32266.