Wildfires leave farmers suffering significant losses

Issue Date: October 7, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

Throughout the regions of California damaged by the most severe wildfire season in recorded history, farmers and ranchers work to pick up the pieces, and crop insurance officials encourage farmers with insurance to contact their agents as soon as possible.

In Sonoma County, even after suffering severe losses after the Glass Fire roared through the Rincon Valley, farmer Larry Tristano said he planned to bring fresh vegetables to a Marin County farmers market he regularly attends.

"We're going to bring a little bit to make our presence known," he said. "Everybody knows what happened to us."

Tristano said he lost all his farm's buildings and most of its equipment.

"The only thing that survived is our tractor that was out in the middle of the field," he said.

The fire "stopped at the crops, but it went around us and went to the neighbor's place, and went up the hill and took our orchard out and almost got the other neighbor's place up there, burned all his fields. We lost every building, every piece of equipment, our refrigeration, our three homes, everything."

In neighboring Napa County, the county Farm Bureau has been polling its members to gauge the level of destruction.

"I already know at this point that it's going to dramatically affect harvest this year, and the way that everybody continues with it," county Farm Bureau Chief Executive Ryan Klobas said.

Farmers and ranchers who have crop insurance and have been affected by wildfires "need to contact their crop insurance agent within 72 hours to file a Notice of Loss," said Jeff Yasui, regional director of tthe U.S. Department of Agriculture unit that oversees crop insurance, the Risk Management Agency. He said farmers would then be contacted by a loss adjuster from their insurance provider, and informed about what sorts of documents or other information they'll need to provide.

About 8.9 million acres of California farmland are covered under the crop-insurance program, Yasui said.

"For most crops, the insurance guarantee is based on the actual production history of the insureds, to reflect the production potential of the crops, and this program does not prevent growers from obtaining crop insurance if they have had losses," he said. "Crop-insurance policy provisions also allow insureds to increase coverage in subsequent years, and many do so to increase their safety net."

About 427,000 acres of California grapes participate in the crop insurance program.

Todd Snider, a Bakersfield crop-insurance agent and a member of the Kern County Farm Bureau board of directors, said winegrape policies are created to be yield-protection insurance and can cover as much as 85% of historical production.

Farmers claiming losses related to smoke will need to document that with evidence of a lab test for which samples were taken before harvest, Snider said.

"The test is imperative to help us determine if it should be a zero-production account because there was, at that point, no good product delivered—but you wouldn't know that until after you received the results of the test," he said.

The two most common mistakes grape growers make in smoke-related claims, Snider said, are taking too large of a sample and failing to test multiple varietals. Sample sizes should be 200 berries at most, he said, and farmers with multiple varietals should take samples from each one, and from each unit.

For example, a grower with 10 acres in one place and 10 more 2 miles down the road needs samples from both, as they're more than a mile apart, Snider said, adding that samples should be drawn as close to harvest as possible.

In ordinary times, the farmer would wait for the test results to come back—but with testing labs facing a weeks-long backlog, Snider said, a grower might try to salvage as much as possible.

"You may decide to harvest if the winery's going to take it and take the chance," he said, adding that he's seeing wineries taking grapes before the test results are in, and then either rejecting them or buying them at a steep discount once the results arrive.

The testing backlog prompted the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the University of California, Davis, to announce last week that they will conduct smoke testing on winegrapes.

CDFA said it can process 30 to 50 samples per day with a turnaround time of three to five days—assuming its labs don't become backlogged. UC Davis is testing grapes through its Department of Viticulture and Enology and College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. For more information, contact CDFA at 916-228-6844 or www.cdfa.ca.gov/is/cac. The UC Davis lab website is anlab.ucdavis.edu.

Another federal program that could help wildfire victims is the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus, or WHIP+.

Erin Huston, a California Farm Bureau Federation policy consultant, said WHIP+ does not cover this year's disasters—only those occurring through 2019.

"That program is going to have to be congressionally extended in order to apply to our current fires," Huston said, adding that CFBF President Jamie Johansson recently met with the administrator of the USDA Farm Service Agency, Richard Fordyce, and will soon meet with Risk Management Agency leaders. CFBF is working with congressional delegations in California, Oregon and Washington state, which have suffered severe wildfire damage this year.

"There's a lot of interest in having this program reauthorized, not just in the West but throughout the country," said Huston, noting recent Midwestern windstorms and hurricanes in Louisiana and Florida. "Based on the conversations we've had to date, we are optimistic the WHIP+ program will be extended."

Huston said she expects Congress to take up the issue in December.

The Napa County Farm Bureau is partnering with Clif Family Winery to provide groceries, clothing, gas and gift cards to be delivered directly to evacuees through the Napa County Farm Bureau Foundation: www.napafarmbureau.org/glassfire.

CFBF maintains a Farm and Rural Disaster Fund to assist rural communities affected by natural disasters; for more information, see the CFBF homepage at www.cfbf.com and follow the link at the top of the page.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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