One Year Later: An open letter from Sarah McClarty

One Year Later: An Open Letter from Sarah McClarty, HMC Farms

Twelve months ago, I wrote an open letter to give an update on how HMC Farms was dealing with the pandemic. I was asked to write a follow-up piece once everything “settled back down” in a few weeks, which became a few months… fast forward to a full year removed from that letter, and things are still far from settled.

Something people often do not understand is that there is no rest in agriculture. Beyond farming being an all-consuming way of life, there is no pause button. If you are sick, the plum trees don’t prune themselves and the grapes don’t stop growing. If we miss a harvest by a window of even a few hours, we risk losing an entire block of peaches.

When you already work in an industry with no pause button and then must deal with new rules and regulations overnight, it is exhausting. Being an essential business is a privilege, but also a burden.

Over the past year, there have been several instances when a compliance deadline for a new rule or regulation was approaching with no formal guidance or FAQs from the issuing body, which meant we put our normal jobs aside to digest the new rules and create our own policies to be in compliance.

We did not have the ability to close the office for a short time to get this done. Instead, it meant working on these special projects all day (or week) and then starting in on our regular job duties when the workday would normally be ending. It also meant waking up in the middle of the night thinking about an angle that hadn’t been considered.

Photo of CFO Sarah McClarty wearing a blue and white checkered shirt in a peach orchard with quote: For the last year, owning and operating a vertically integrated farming organization has meant laughing at the idea of being able to take a day off. It has meant being tired all the time; it has meant no rest.

For the last year, owning and operating a vertically integrated farming organization has meant laughing at the idea of being able to take a day off. It has meant being tired all the time; it has meant no rest.

We, as owners and management, are not the only tired ones, so are our employees. Working in the field or a packing house is arduous work. Having to go home after a long day of work to help children do schoolwork, worry about being around vulnerable family members, and dealing with the burden of a global pandemic has weighed heavily on them too.

Our employees are our family, and not being able to give them answers or put all their worries to rest is hard. We have been able to offer them continued access to our free health care clinic, which included same-day appointments for COVID tests when everywhere else had a 3-5 day wait to get an appointment. We have also had the benefit of working with the California Farmworker Foundation to be one of the first sites in California to give on-site (literally right on the farm) vaccines to farmworkers in early February, and then again to any employees in our organization that wanted them a few weeks later. So many people left the building after receiving their vaccine smiling, thanking us for getting the vaccines to them, and in general, being able to finally put their minds at ease. In all honesty, seeing that weight lifted from their shoulders was the highlight of the past year for me.

Just like last year when I wrote the letter, we are approaching our harvest season, which again brings a lot of questions and unknowns. We have raised wages. Packaging has even longer lead times and higher costs. We are spending more money on PPE, increased sanitary measures, testing, and contact tracing; all while losing efficiencies because of the priority we put on safely distancing employees.

Most of our retail customers are not willing to pay more for our products, even though it is costing us more to produce them and the outlook for the foodservice industry is still full of question marks. Crunching those numbers keeps me up at night.

A year without rest is hard, but we believe in what we do and are dedicated to growing the best fruit we can. As always, we will get creative in the solutions we offer our customers and put our employees’ best interests at the forefront of our decision-making. Hopefully someday soon I can write that “settled back down” update and take a vacation, but for now we will be doing our best to get fresh fruit on people’s tables all summer long.

Photo of CFO Sarah McClarty wearing a blue and white checkered shirt in a peach orchard with text that reads: one year later, an open letter from Sarah McClarty at HMC Farms

Note from The Produce Moms original blog post featuring Sarah’s letter:

One year ago, The Produce Moms Covid-19 content series provided our community of consumer followers with perspectives and real-life stories from the agriculture supply chain.  In our series, we posted a guest blog authored by Sarah McClarty, Chief Financial Officer and Co-Owner of HMC Farms.  You can read it here.

Rooting back to 1887, HMC Farms is a multi-generation family farm located in California’s Central Valley. HMC Farms is a leading grower in table grapes and tree fruit including peaches, plums, nectarines and plumcots.

HMC Farms is a leader in bringing fresh produce to schools.  You can learn more about their commitment to schools at And you can learn more about the family farm at

HMC Farms and The Produce Moms have been brand partners for nearly 4 years.  We are so passionate about what they do and the delicious fruit that they grow. Enjoy this reflective letter from Sarah, one year later.

Letter from HMC Farms co-owner and Chief Financial Officer, Sarah McClarty

I’m writing this blog at 5:00 am, trying to get a few hours of work done in peace before I get to perform the exhausting dance of helping keep our company afloat, our employees safe, and the nation’s food supply secure while homeschooling our two children. I’ve been doing this for almost a month now. I’m tired, I’m scared, and I’m one of the lucky ones.

We had approximately 1.5 million pounds of grapes in our cold storage destined for schools, restaurants, amusement parks, airlines, and hotels when much of the nation was told to stay home, schools were closed, and businesses locked their doors. These grapes weren’t in bags you can find in the grocery store, they were prepped for food service channels – bulk grapes, pre-cut into perfect handful size bunches and grapes already taken off the stem, washed, and ready to eat. Overnight, a lot of our food service customers stopped ordering and sent us letters stating they have no idea when they’ll be able to pay us again. No money coming in and a mountain of perishable inventory is not a business model anyone would recommend, but as my father-in-law Harold put it – we are considered an essential business, and we had the chance to keep operating. It was time to get creative.

Green grapes in background with quote in foreground: We had approximately 1.5 million pounds of grapes in our cold storage destined for schools, restaurants, amusement parks, airlines, and hotels when much of the nation was told to stay home, schools were closed, and businesses locked their doors.

We started repacking our grapes into retail ready bags, worked with school districts to get them the product they needed in packaging that worked for their new meal pick-up formats, and pushed inventory into home delivery services that have seen an uptick in their businesses. We have a longstanding relationship with our local food bank, and have donated millions of pounds of summer stone fruit to them over the years. We knew there was no way we would sell all of our inventory, and we also knew there was a large population in our community that would need assistance during this time. Before the grapes deteriorated, we started sending the California Association of Food Banks several truckloads of fruit each week. Last week, our local food bank reached out to their longtime donors asking if there was anything more we could do – they had a 50% jump in need in the prior two weeks, and almost a quarter of the people receiving food and supplies were first time visitors to the food bank.  Only a few months prior, HMC had hosted a volunteer night at the food bank packing up hundreds of boxes for their weekly distributions. With tears in my eyes, wondering what those families are going through now I wrote a large check on behalf of the McClarty Family.

In the forefront of our planning during this entire time has been the safety of our employees. Their health is not only required for us to keep operating, but they are part of our family and we would never want to compromise their safety. Across our operations, we have always maintained high sanitary standards as is required of food growers, handlers, and processors; but we have redoubled our efforts and taken further steps to allow for social distancing. As mitigation steps, we have broken our crews into small pods, we don’t move employees between pods, breaks and lunchtimes are staggered by pods, and in our packing facility the different pods wear different color labels to help promote separation. We sponsor a free clinic for our employees that has remained open and servicing clients during this time. Though we’ve had to lay off people in our processing plant due to the drastic downturn in business, we continue to allow them to access the clinic and receive both acute and maintenance care during this health crisis.

We are now looking forward. We have millions of dollars invested in the crops out in our fields right now. Our sales staff is doing their best to meet our customers’ ever-changing needs including adjustments to packaging that there are now even longer production lead times on. Supplies in general are hard to come by and must be ordered weeks in advance. We have started the labor-intensive practice of thinning our stone fruit, and must still pay for continued cultural practices, harvest, packing, storage, and shipment of our product before it gets to an end user. All of this means paying out money now, when we are facing the uphill battle of collecting receivables from longtime customers that are facing unprecedented financial challenges of their own.

As my son’s 2nd grade teacher told her students during one of their Zoom instructional meetings last week, we are living through a significant historical moment right now. While many people continue to try to predict, none of us know the long-term ramifications this pandemic has or will cause. We as food producers have an opportunity to be part of that history lesson, to be part of a success story. To keep our food supply flowing, we need to see flexibility in trucking rules, we need the USDA to step in and use the existing PACA Act to help keep money flowing back to producers, we need to see relaxation in regulations that are now at odds with new COVID-19 requirements, we must keep farmers and ranchers growing and producing food. Decisions being made now will impact our nation’s food supply for years. HMC is committed to helping support these changes, our employees, and our community. This is a time for everyone to get creative and to help each other out. We will keep evolving to do our best under ever-changing circumstances.

Sarah McClarty,

Chief Financial Officer, HMC Farms

Sarah McClarty standing in a peach orchard wearing a blue and white checkered shirt