Legislation seeks to expand access to disaster relief

In January, atmospheric river storms devastated much of Davis Ranch, a south Sacramento County farm known for its produce market selling corn, cucumbers, summer squash, green beans and peppers.

“We had quite a disaster,” said Rick Grimshaw, owner of the farm based in Sloughhouse. He said flooding after a levee break severely damaged farm fields. He applied for federal disaster assistance but is still waiting for reimbursement for costs to put the farm back in order.

Last week, Grimshaw had the ear of U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, who used Davis Ranch as a backdrop to announce legislation to improve disaster relief to help specialty crop farmers recover from catastrophic events.

Along with the bill’s co-author Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Padilla introduced the Fair Access to Agriculture Disaster Programs Act. The legislation waives adjusted gross income restrictions that prevent some farmers from receiving disaster relief under U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.

Padilla said the measure could help California growers who produce high-value specialty crops but are saddled with high land costs and escalating expenses.

“Our federal disaster safety-net programs don’t account for the realities facing farmers today,” Padilla said.

He noted that restrictions prohibit growers with adjusted gross income of $900,000 or more from accessing disaster assistance programs. Padilla said the AGI standard restricts assistance to “far too many farmers trying to survive from season to season because the land values in California or the input costs for a lot of specialty crops are not reflected or accounted for in the disaster assistance programs.”

Navdeep Dhillon, farm program chief for the USDA Farm Service Agency in California, said lifting the AGI standard for people earning 75% or more of their income from farming or ranching can significantly increase access to disaster assistance.

“It would increase the number of participants in our programs and allow farmers to continue farming,” she said.

After fallowing crops during three years of drought, California farmers this year suffered massive losses from flooding, with strawberry growers on the Central Coast and dairies in the Central Valley hit particularly hard during January and March storms. Padilla noted the recent Tropical Storm Hilary, which damaged farms in the Coachella Valley, underscored the urgency for the legislation.

Mark Martinez, vice president of public policy for the California Strawberry Commission, joined Padilla for a discussion at Davis Ranch along with representatives of USDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“This has been a very difficult year for California strawberry production, with millions of dollars in losses such as in Ventura, Santa Maria and the Pajaro and Salinas valleys, where we had the largest flooding in decades,” Martinez said. “It’s critical to provide storm-impacted growers the financial assistance needed to produce crops like strawberries that are so important to the American diet.”

Permission for use is granted. However, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation