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Storm Loss Estimate for Crops Rises to $519 Million : Agriculture: Officials are now calling this California's worst rainy season ever.

March 23, 1995|MICHAEL PARRISH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a storm season that officials now consider the worst in state history, the California Department of Food and Agriculture Wednesday raised its estimate of crop losses from the winter rains to $519 million.

Even that figure will probably keep rising, said Michael Chrisman, a department undersecretary, as a new round of wind and rain was tormenting farmers on Wednesday. The rain was especially heavy in the Napa and Sacramento valleys.

"With the storm moving through now," Chrisman noted, "we're getting further and further into the fruit season." And for winter crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and strawberries, "oftentimes there is very little recovery" from storm damage, he added.

On Wednesday, Monterey County, by far the hardest hit county in the state, raised its damage estimate from the $221 million reported on Monday to $238 million. Several other counties also reported higher estimates of losses over those released just days before.

The state Office of Emergency Services now considers the January and March storms to be the worst in recorded history, primarily because the rains have blanketed the state. Total agricultural losses have reached $519 million since January, including $422 million so far in March.

Nevertheless, despite isolated reports that some restaurants have raised prices for their salads, wholesale produce prices have not been dramatically higher.

In fact, prices for broccoli and cauliflower--both crops that were heavily damaged by the storms--dropped slightly Wednesday on the Los Angeles wholesale market, according to the market news division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Andrew Hatch, a USDA specialist in vegetables, believes produce prices could well go up in a few weeks, however. "Later in the season, when Arizona has less supply and California has less supply, you'll see how (much) the storms have affected the crops," he said Wednesday.

California lettuce, which was also hard hit, went up 50 cents to $1 for a wholesale box, Hatch reported, but that is significantly less than the jumps of $3 to $4 per box last week. Hatch expects lettuce prices to level off now because there are ample supplies of good-quality product in Arizona fields.

Meanwhile, Gov. Pete Wilson has lifted some restrictions in the state's endangered species law and persuaded the state Air Resources Board to waive some air-pollution rules to help farmers clear and burn off debris-clogged fields and waterways. In addition, Douglas P. Wheeler, state resources secretary, has asked U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to relax some requirements of the federal endangered species law.

Late Wednesday, Jay Ziegler, an Interior Department spokesman, told The Times that Babbitt would agree to the request, probably today, in accord with longstanding department policies.

Ziegler said, however, that these emergency measures have been invoked often in the past 20 years and that the law itself has never been shown to have hampered recovery efforts in any disaster. "There isn't a single bit of evidence that there has ever been a problem before," he said.

The government's actions are intended to allow farmers to do whatever is necessary to restore their farms to pre-flood conditions. More flexible burning rules will help farmers dispose of the more than 1 million destroyed trees in orchards around the state.

Chrisman added that the administration and some state Assembly members were also attempting to extend unemployment benefits for farm workers unable to work in the flooded fields. He did not dispute that illegal immigrants probably would not receive state aid.

"I suspect that (their eligibility) is going to have to be determined as they move through the process," Chrisman said. But he asserted that with soup kitchens and other private efforts, "nobody is going to go hungry."

As for the farmers, Wilson has proposed that taxpayers harmed by the storm be allowed to write off 100% of their losses during the next five years, and 50% for up to 10 years.

In administration interviews with farmers, "that was one of the first things that came up--some sort of tax reform in terms of carrying forward the losses," said Food and Agriculture spokeswoman Emma Suarez Pawlicki.

Assemblyman Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz) said that he will introduce such legislation in Sacramento today. It "follows the structure of laws passed after the Northridge and Loma Prieta earthquakes as well as the flooding that took place in January," McPherson said.

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