Pete Oliver likes to say that his small green Army jeep is older than he is, and he’s 76. But it still runs well after a few starts, and he uses it to drive around his small farm west of downtown Fresno. On this day, he takes the jeep out to where his watermelons are fading in the heat.
“See that little light area in the middle of the melons there,” he says pointing to white spots on the leaves that have been baked by the sun.
Oliver has farmed for most of his life. His parents bought a farm in Kingsburg when he was just a baby. By age 7, he was picking cotton for them; he knows how hot San Joaquin Valley summers can get. But this heatwave, he says, is close to unbearable.
“The sun is just really, really beating down,” he says. “It’s hot out here now and it’s probably 12 o’clock. At 2 or 3 o’clock, it’s really smoking out here.”
Oliver and other farmers worry about the high temperatures July is bringing and whether some of their crops, especially their melons, will survive the excessive heat.
Farmer Kong Siew is concerned about the bitter melons she grows. They’re not looking good, she says, even when she gives them more water.
“I don’t know what to do,” she says. She’s at a loss.
The afternoon is pushing 104 degrees as Siew pushes her wheelbarrow along rows of senqua. She sells the green ribbed vegetables to a company specializing in Southeast Asian produce.
She stops to clip the vegetables off of a trellis that runs the length of her farm. She’s got a ways to go and it’s early afternoon but she says she won’t finish today.
“One o’clock, time to go home,” she says. “Too hot!”
At the National Weather Service’s regional office, Meteorologist Andy Bollenbacher says this past weekend saw multiple records set in cities across the Valley. He points to climate change, the drought and less water coming from the nearby Sierra Nevada snowmelt.
“When that soil moisture content is depleted like we’re seeing right now, it’s able to build on the heat dome we’re already seeing because the soil’s so dry,” he says.
And that can increase the number of wildfires in the foothills and mountains.
“This allows the fuels to dry out for a longer period of time, they cure and then you have a higher fire risk,” he says.
As for farmers, Bollenbacher says he’s heard from a lot of them including one who told him the other day, “if one of his wells fails then he is going to go under because of how desperate the conditions have been for him.”
Back in west Fresno, Donald Sherman grows a variety of melons.
“All of these here, these are your Crenshaw melons, you can see the sunburn on them,” he says.
He reaches down and crushes some brown leaves in his hand.
“That’s the sound of a dry vine, and that’s gone,'' he says, letting the pieces drop on the ground. “And that’s not coming back.”
Usually these melons grow through the end of August but this year’s July heat killed many of them. Sherman wonders how he’ll adapt to climate change and more hot weather in the future.
“It's part of farming,” he says. “You have to adapt or you will be extinct.”
Maybe he’ll stagger summer crops, he says, and start growing some earlier.
“It’s something that we’re all going to have to figure out how to adjust to, you know, and be able to compensate so when that happens, we won’t get hurt so bad,” Sherman says.
As for Pete Oliver, he has another small farm in Kingsburg, the one he worked on as a kid. But that land is fallow now and he can’t see planting anything there in the future.
“It’s just really tough to try to make it now,” Oliver says. “The small farmer is fast fading.”
Oliver says he will be the last of his family to make a living as a farmer. His kids don’t want to farm. Anything but, they tell him.