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Growers post record loss

Ventura County reports $281million in damaged crops and landscape plants, the result of a severe cold spell earlier this month.

January 24, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County farmers lost a record $281 million in crops and nursery stock during a recent cold snap, while the state's overall losses could top $1 billion, officials said Tuesday.

The new Ventura County figure, nearly triple that of an earlier estimate, takes into account the loss of high-value commodities -- such as strawberries, raspberries and costly landscaping plants -- that were not fully assessed for damage until this week, county Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail told the Board of Supervisors.

Losses now far exceed the $128 million recorded after a two-day freeze in December 1990 and $74 million in the winter of 1998. When factoring in job losses and slowdowns at packinghouses, shippers and grocery stores, Ventura County's economy has taken a hit close to $750 million, McPhail said.

"It's just a big domino effect," McPhail told reporters.

The recent cold affected a swath of crops across the state, killing avocados, strawberries and cut flowers in parts of Southern California.

Citrus growers lost at least $800 million, according to a report released Tuesday by California Citrus Mutual, a trade group.

State agricultural officials say overall losses to citrus, avocados and strawberries could surpass $1 billion.

"We're going to find more damages along the way, but some of that we won't know until spring or even summer," said Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual.

State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner on Tuesday declared an emergency, clearing the way for claims adjusters in other states to help assess damage to crops. He estimated that 90% of crops are covered by some insurance.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in 16 counties, including San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura. The governor's office, along with local officials, are asking for federal help in dealing with the crisis.

In Ventura County, a breakdown of the frost damage shows that nurseries reported the highest losses at $85.4 million.

Trees, shrubs and flowers used in landscaping are often more costly than crops, and they were hit hard by seven days of sub-freezing temperatures beginning Jan. 12, McPhail said.

"There are some guys out there who lost 10-foot-tall ficus trees worth $2,000 at retail," he said.

Based on acreage and the per-ton value of crops, avocados logged the next-highest loss at $66.5 million, followed by lemons at $46.6 million, berries other than strawberries at $36.7 million and strawberries at $26.1 million. The losses are self-reported by growers and verified by the county agricultural commissioner's office.

Growers reported a $13.8 million loss in oranges and $5.5 million in leafy vegetables, according to McPhail's report.

Citrus comes in with comparatively low losses because Ventura County farms are no longer dominated by rows of Valencia and navel oranges, McPhail said. In 1990, 15,500 acres were planted in oranges. By 2005, the acreage was down to 5,700, McPhail's report said.

Board members expressed concern about not only crop losses but also the estimated 11,000 laborers who are out of work. They will need help getting food on the table and paying bills, Supervisor John Flynn said.

Flynn said he fears that those who are here illegally won't go for help because they worry about getting deported.

McPhail told reporters that the county's $1.2-billion agricultural business could suffer further in the months ahead if farm laborers move out of the county for jobs.

"Our greatest fear is they will go someplace else where there is work, and there won't be any workers here in five or six weeks when the strawberries are ready for harvest."

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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