100-year-old Noble Orchards faces complications after campfire, COVID • Sacramento News & Review

By Ken Smith

When the campfire raged in Paradise on November 8, 2018, Jim and Laurie Noble barely escaped with their lives. Almost everything they left behind, including three homes and eight outbuildings that made up the infrastructure of their business, Noble Orchards, caught fire. However, the heart of their operation – the apple and stone fruit orchards – miraculously survived.

The insurance enabled the couple to rebuild their home, but there was not enough to rebuild the remaining buildings needed to keep the farm running. Three years later, and at the end of this year’s apple harvest, survival remains a struggle complicated by slow payouts promised by the Fire Victims Trust, a $13.5 billion PG&E-funded account set up for those who have suffered losses due to the fires that the company is responsible for starting. (For more on the survivors’ struggles, see “Everybody needs more time. »

“We have a business that is mature and ready to go, literally,” Laurie said last Thursday (October 28), “but we’re running out of facilities and they’re not funded yet. We understand that this is an extremely complex situation, so we are doing what we can. But we want things to go a little faster.

The recovery was affected by another disaster: COVID-19. Not only has business been drastically curtailed during the pandemic, as with many, but recent efforts to maintain safety protocols while salvaging what they can from the harvest have been welcomed by their community.

Delayed relief

Jim and Laurie Noble stand among some of the remaining apples in their orchard from this year’s harvest. (Photo by Ken Smith)

The Nobles told their story as they sat on flat land overlooking orchards that was once occupied by their cold storage unit, which was a repurposed packing shed built by Jim’s grandfather in the 1930s The absence of this particular building is the source of their most pressing current challenge: the picking season for most of the more than a dozen varieties of apples grown in the field has already passed. Only Granny Smiths remain in abundance, and it’s only a matter of weeks, if not days, before they too mature too much and fall to the ground.

“Normally when we pick Galas in August, we’ll still have some for sale in December,” Laurie said. “But because of the cold storage situation, anything on the trees has to be picked, and anything that’s picked has to be sold.”

Laurie explained that they had a plan for a cold storage unit in hand a few weeks after the fire, but rebuilding depends not only on funding which has been delayed, but also on a full map of everything that needs to be done. be rebuilt.

“It’s all about MONEY, which is a huge unknown,” she said. “We have to decide what we can afford to rebuild and how the business will continue without spending every penny we have.”

“Especially at our age,” Jim quipped, noting that he was over 70 and Laurie was in her 60s.

Longtime Paradise City Council member Steve “Woody” Culleton said many Camp Fire victims, including others struggling to keep their businesses alive, are in the same boat. He explained how PG&E’s contribution to survivors is half cash and half company stock, which has fallen by at least $2 billion since the deal was struck. The vast majority of local victims are still waiting for funds. A total of $3.6 billion in determinations have been made so far with only $1.1 billion actually paid, according to the trust official website.

“It’s a joke,” Culleton said. “The people administering the trust have earned far more money than has been distributed.” Culleton said larger entities such as the City of Paradise, Adventist Health (owner of Feather River Hospital), AT&T and others have already received huge sums of money through lawsuits and others. repairs, while citizens and small businesses are left in need.

The Nobles expect it could be up to two years before they can innovate in cold storage and other critical infrastructure, and even that will require making tough decisions to ultimately rebuild just part of it. what was lost.

Collection Policy

In the meantime, the Nobles have taken steps to ensure that the harvest is not entirely wasted. For one thing, they started selling at the Chico Saturday Farmers’ Market in early October for the first time since the Campfire.

“People there have been really supportive and appreciated our being back there,” Laurie said.

The Nobles also instituted a “U-Pick” program, inviting people to come to their orchard to pick apples for $1 a pound. They require visitors to show proof of vaccination and wear masks, prompting critics to castigate them on social media.

“The COVID thing really turned a lot of people off and irritated some,” Laurie said.

“But it’s our choice, and we’ve been through enough disasters already with what you see here…and don’t see here,” she continued, pointing to the damaged farmhouse. “The thought that he or I weren’t here is unbearable, and then the company wouldn’t exist at all.”

Jim noted that there are also liability issues if someone gets infected while picking apples. “We better avoid all this. If some people aren’t happy and want to insult us, that’s their problem.

“We also had a lot of people calling in and appreciating the rules,” Laurie said. “They like being able to go out to a place where they know they will be safe. People came to bring everyone from children to great-grandparents, four generations picking apples together.

Culleton called the actions of those who criticized the Nobles over their COVID rules “unconscionable.” He lamented how everything has become so divisive and politicized — even apple picking — in the post-Trump era.

“The Nobles are a cornerstone of our community; they are our neighbors and they need support,” he said. “Their orchards are also part of the history of Paradise… after gold mining there was logging, and when Paradise was cleared people planted apple orchards. They used to be everywhere here, and now it’s the last working orchard here.

Indeed, the Nobles would mark the centenary of the family business this year, but have given up on hosting celebrations due to the uncertainty of COVID and the lack of infrastructure on the farm.

Rains interrupted Noble’s pick-your-own efforts and the recent storm toppled a few trees that Jim had to push back, but Laurie said the necessary rainfall is the best disturbance possible. The Nobles couldn’t predict when they will end U-Picking, as there’s no way to tell exactly when the apples will no longer be good, but they said it was at better a matter of weeks.

Even if the apples don’t sell, the Nobles said they hate to see them go to waste. They have already donated 700 pounds of apples to Dixie Fire relief efforts and said they were happy to consider donating to other organizations aimed at fighting fires or hunger. That is, as long as the organizations can pick the harvest themselves.

“If anyone can organize about 20 people to come clean the apples and deliver them to Plumas County or wherever they’re needed, that would be great,” Laurie said. “It makes sense that if we have a surplus of food that no one is using, then let’s get it to them.”

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