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Rains Inflict $65 Million in Crop Damage

February 18, 1998|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Recent rains have smashed strawberries, assaulted artichokes and bruised broccoli, inflicting more than $65 million in damage on California farmers so far, the state Department of Food and Agriculture said Tuesday.

And growers are bracing for more in the next few days, as two new storms packing fierce winds bear down on the state.

Though many individual growers have suffered at the hands of Mother Nature this year, the overall damage figure pales against the $245 million in losses attributed to the widespread floods of January 1997.

Most damage last year was not to crops but to levees, equipment and buildings, and it was followed by unexpectedly ideal weather that resulted in record harvests of almonds and other crops, said Bob Krauter, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento.

This year, the rain and wind have prevented beekeepers from getting pollinating bees into the almond orchards blooming in Kern and Fresno counties. In heavy winds, the bees tend to stay in their hives.

With vegetable planting delayed on thousands of soggy acres along the Central Coast, the stage is set for possible shortages and somewhat higher retail prices in spring and early summer.

"The ground is totally saturated, making it virtually impossible to get equipment into the fields to plant," said Bill Tarp, owner and president of Triangle Farms Inc., which grows 2,400 acres of lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and other vegetables in the Salinas Valley for Dole Food Co. and other companies.

Tarp has lost about 45 acres of head lettuce and romaine lettuce that were just germinating.

"It's making me very nervous," he said. "I suspect in May there will definitely be a shortage of vegetables."

But vegetable production remains strong in the Imperial and Coachella valleys in Southern California, which is bolstering supplies and tempering prices.

Growers with early-season contracts for processing tomatoes have been hit hard from Fresno to Colusa counties. The normal planting period extends from February through mid-May, with harvesting in July, August and September. Because farmers can't get tractors in to their fields, processors could face shortages, said John Welty, executive vice president of the California Tomato Growers Assn. in Stockton.

That means there's "a very real chance" that by late spring, consumers could be paying a nickel to a dime more per can for tomato paste.

However, Welty noted, California farming tends to bounce back from severe weather.

"Even if there are two more storms," he said, "it's not going to be a catastrophe."

State agriculture officials cautioned that estimates are preliminary. Ventura County, at $18 million, has reported the highest damage estimate, including $7 million in damage to early-season strawberries.

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