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Agriculture Officials View Crop Damage as Prelude to Getting Federal Loan Help


Federal and state agriculture and emergency officials Wednesday toured two of the California counties hit hardest last month by the deep freeze that devastated citrus and row crops throughout the state.

Authorities visited farms in Tulare and Ventura counties to verify crop damage, a necessary step in obtaining federal disaster loans for farmers statewide.

Henry J. Voss, director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture, said he would recommend after returning to Sacramento that the state declare an emergency statewide.

"We learned today that we do have a disaster throughout the state of California, with much broader damage among a cross-section of crops than what we would have thought a week ago," Voss said. "I don't think there has ever been a frost as bad in California before."

Jack Parnell, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Voss' predecessor at the state level, said the federal government has money available for disaster assistance loans, but he could not estimate the total.

Ventura County Agriculture Commissioner Earl McPhail welcomed the visit from state and federal representatives. Their firsthand knowledge of damage will help growers obtain the loans they need to recover from the frost which began Dec. 21, sending temperatures plunging to 15 degrees in Ventura County orchards, he said.

"Something has to be done to help us out," said McPhail, whose office has estimated damage at $100 million in Ventura County alone. Like agriculture commissioners statewide, McPhail will update his figures as growers learn how much of their fruit that may appear undamaged is dried out, and how badly trees are damaged, affecting future harvests.

No estimates of damage statewide were available Wednesday because any such estimates would be "premature, just a guess," said Bob Fox, chief deputy director at the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

But Tulare and Ventura counties are among 15 statewide that have taken steps to declare disasters in their areas from extensive frost damage, opening the way for federal assistance.

Tulare, Fresno and Kern counties have already made disaster declarations and requested assistance from the state, said Joe Bandy, regional coordinator for the Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento.

Ventura County Supervisor Maggie Erickson, who joined officials on the tour, said supervisors will declare an emergency at a special meeting planned for today and ask the governor's office for a similar declaration.

Gov. George Deukmejian already declared a disaster in Santa Cruz County, where the cold caused pipes to burst, impacting "the health and safety" of the residents, state officials said Wednesday.

In both Tulare and Ventura counties, officials said, they saw evidence of severe damage to citrus fruit and trees. Some fruit was soft, indicating its pulp had been freeze-dried, while the new, thumb-sized pieces were darkened and rock-hard.

Curt Anderson, vice president of Sunkist Co., a cooperative that markets fruit for 6,000 growers predominantly in California, estimated that about one-third of the annual crop has been lost.

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