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How California's Blackouts Are Affecting The State's Dairy Farmers


Firefighters are still trying to contain wildfires burning across California. And as part of the effort to prevent additional fires, the state's largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, has been deliberately cutting power to millions of residents, even residents who are relatively far away from the current wildfires. Businesses in California are taking a real hit from these rolling power outages, which can last several days at a time. And to talk more about that toll, we're joined now by Cody Nicholson Stratton. He's a dairy farmer in the Northern California town of Ferndale.



CHANG: So I just to start out by giving people an idea of how much your business relies on electricity because I guess a dairy farm may not seem to suffer in obvious ways when there's a blackout, compared to say, like, laundromat a or a restaurant. Can you just tell us how much your farm depends on electricity?

NICHOLSON STRATTON: Well, our farm's entirely dependent on electricity. We use it to run our milk barn, which is a twice-a-day operation, for about seven to eight hours. We need power to cool our milk tanks to maintain legal temperatures, as well as to run electric pumps to pull water for the cattle to ensure that they have water throughout the day. And so as far as keeping the farm operational and cows healthy and happy, we need power.

CHANG: Constantly. But I mean, I imagine that you do expect occasional blackouts to occur, like, as a result of storms. So how do these planned, longer power outages - how different do they feel compared to, say, naturally occurring blackouts?

NICHOLSON STRATTON: They feel a fairly bit different. We do plan on power outages. However, knowing they're coming and having them last for several days, opposed to a couple hours, is quite a bit different for us. There's also a level of uncertainty with them as far as the different agencies relaying different information and different timelines as to when power is going out, which results in us generally running on generators when we may still have power because we can't lose power during milking.

CHANG: Wow. What about procuring enough fuel to run these generators? Does that become a problem?

NICHOLSON STRATTON: So we were able to fill our on-farm fuel tanks in advance, but there's definitely been rationing within the county and fuel selling out. And that, you know - for a business, that becomes a problem, not to mention as for individual families.

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah. So it sounds like there are tremendous ripple effects that happen when there is this planned power outage. Can you just give me a picture of how your daily life has been reordered during one of these blackouts?

NICHOLSON STRATTON: Yeah. Our farm is multigenerational, and there's several family members that work on it. And as a result of the wildfires - my dad actually is a volunteer firefighter - left and is fighting fire, which left me alone on the farm. You know, I get up now at 2 o'clock to start generators.


NICHOLSON STRATTON: I will have to stay up until 10 or later to make sure that cows have water. And my night went from a six to seven hours of sleep to two or three at a time.

CHANG: That's incredible. How much money do you think your farm has lost directly because of these planned power outages by PG&E?

NICHOLSON STRATTON: I'm - I won't know for sure until the bills come, I suppose. But we've definitely seen a decrease in production. Despite the fact that we do our best to make sure that they have water, there's always difficulties in keeping water in front of them, which decreases production. So we're making less milk, and then we're spending quite a bit more on diesel. So I'm sure there's going to be a bit of a economic loss for us in this.

CHANG: I mean, when you're looking at the whole situation, though, do you feel like you could blame PG&E for doing this? Or do you think that they're handling the problem in a way that is unnecessarily costly to people like you?

NICHOLSON STRATTON: I think at the end of the day, we have family that lost homes in the 2017 fires in Santa Rosa. And we have family in the Healdsburg and Windsor area that's - have been impacted, as well as friends that farm down there. And I understand needing to shut the power off. And I think it's a hardship, personally, that I'm willing to bear if it saves families and saves human lives.

CHANG: Well, I wish you all the best. Cody Nicholson Stratton is a dairy farmer based in Ferndale, Calif.

Thank you very much for joining us.

NICHOLSON STRATTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.