California: Thomas Fire means “long road back to rebuilding” for many avocado farms

December 13 , 2017

One of the biggest wildfires in California’s history continues to pose a threat to two counties that account for more than a third of the state’s avocado farmland, in what an industry leader describes as a “heart-wrenching” situation for many family farmers. 

Map of the Thomas Fire courtesy of Inciweb.nwcg.gov.

At the time of writing yesterday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) was reporting 234,200 acres had been burned by the fire in the Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, with 20% containment and 794 structures destroyed.

California Avocado Commission president Tom Bellamore told Fresh Fruit Portal there were around 15,800 acres of avocados planted in Ventura County and 4,300 acres in Santa Barbara County, but just how many of them had been damaged was still uncertain.

“We don’t know the extent of that at this point – we believe it to be in the hundreds of acres but it could be in excess of a thousand acres,” Bellamore said.

“There are many avocado properties that are threatened and certainly many that are impacted. 

“Then you have various levels of impact. In the worst case you have growers who have lost their homes, their groves or portions of their groves; that’s really the most heart-wrenching because not only are these growers losing their residences but essentially they’re losing their livelihoods as well.”

He said there were also other farms where trees had been damaged but “recovery might be possible going forward”.

“But for those people who have suffered the greatest losses where they’ve lost a home and the grove as well, that’s a long road back in terms of rebuilding. 

“I have horses on my property where I live which is not in an avocado area, and we know of avocado growers who have livestock – it always touches me when I hear there’s been a loss of livestock, horses in particular. It really tears you up.”

He said the level of insurance was variable depending on the grower, whether it be from federal disaster assistance programs or crop insurance from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“There is a full line of crop insurance if you will that would cover any number of events. Some have minimal coverage and in terms of the crop insurance program and others, none at all,” Bellamore said.

“I’m sure with respect to their residences they have homeowners insurance and so forth, but it really varies from grower to grower. 

“The crop insurance program is utilized but the enrolment rate across the avocado industry is not all that high really as far as getting the full coverage.”

He said the commission would be doing what it can as organization to represent the interests of affected growers to see if it could somehow get federal assistance for the recovery of impacted groves.

“Regardless of whether they had crop insurance or not, if the number of individuals and acres involved are such that it makes sense to step forward to the federal government and put the best case forward for helping the growers get back on-line, then we would certainly think about that,” he said.

Robb Bertels of Mission Produce, one of the state’s leading grower-marketers, said in a statement that fortunately the company’s business operations hadn’t been disrupted but it did have “a number of people that have been affected by the Thomas Fire–some lost homes, and some are still under evacuation orders”.

“As we work our way through this and assess the magnitude of it all, we are working hard to take care of the families in our communities who need our help,” Bertels said.

We will continue to monitor this situation and provide updates. If you are a grower who has been affected, please let us know via email at news@freshfruitportal.com. Our thoughts are with everyone who has been impacted.

Headline photo: Pixabay

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