Dire situation for crops, produce looms after California’s wildfires

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Dire situation for crops, produce looms after California’s wildfires

By Lauren R. Hartman - 09/11/2018
Photo from the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, Calif.

California’s wildfires have ravaged the state all summer long, burning hundreds of thousands of acres of land and threatening thousands of homes. The smoke and debris stemming from the blazes have even made their way across other parts of the country, bringing smoke clouds and poor air quality with them.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection continues to track the fires online with information about the approximate acres burning, the number of structures that have been destroyed, the level of containment and more.

Some of the fires have been contained, news reports noted last month, but California firefighters continue to battle the 10 to 20 percent of the fires left. My heart goes out to those who have experienced this tragedy. In addition to the human suffering and substantial property damage these fires have caused in several areas, they have hit our agricultural areas hard, with tragic results.

Many California farmers have endured the vast destruction of acres of valuable fruit trees, potato fields, bell pepper, citrus, avocado and lettuce farms and other produce crops planted between Burbank, Calif. and Basin City, Wash. The devastation this summer has severely impacted farmers and will delay some crops, reports National Public Radio, in a recent article. “The wildfire smoke blanketed much of the West for days and weeks,” NPR said. ”And that smoke has come between the sun and ripening crops.”

The full extent of the crop damage for the farming industries in California is still being assessed, but it is imperative that retailers and consumers show some compassion and understanding for farmers and the region’s produce providers and distributors during this tough time. The fires may be creating shortages and price hikes, but for many farmers in the Golden State, it has meant the loss of jobs and their livelihood. Across the agricultural areas, the fires’ thick smoke has dusted crops with a blanket of ash and soot.

Some of the potato farmers still have to harvest their fields, which in some cases, are spread over as much as 40 miles, NPR’s report said. Because the skies were often covered in black billows of smoke this summer, many crops didn’t ripen as they should. One farmer estimated a week lost to the smoke cost him nearly $35,000 in a single field.

A field of produce costing thousands can go up in smoke in a few days or its harvest can be delayed, the farmers said. Field workers must wear facemasks to protect themselves from the thick dust while they pick and prepare the crops. Yet even with the masks, the smoke has made many workers sick with tight chests, itchy eyes and dry throats.

Now, there’s a labor shortage, NPR said, and some farms lost 90 percent of their crops. Other crops affected in Ventura County alone include hundreds of acres of fruit, hay, oats and walnuts, not to mention livestock and the now-razed land that feeds it, according to Ventura county Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales, as told to the Ventura County Star.

Gonzales estimated there were 10,289 acres of farmland in Ventura County within the perimeter of the fire, so he acknowledges it will take months to fully determine the agricultural damage caused by the fires.

Granted, many of the farms have crop insurance that hopefully will cover some extent of the losses suffered, and a lot of federal programs can provide post-disaster assistance. But as Gonzales said, cattlemen and farmers serve as stewards of the land, and invasive weed species could dominate their environment and create fuel for future fires if they go out of business.

But some farmers are already rebuilding and with help and support from retailers, consumers and municipalities the hope is that even the smaller farms could bounce back. Coalitions of concerned organizations, such as the American Red Cross and the California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund, and others are raising millions of dollars in the aftermath of the fires.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart and the Walmart Foundation said in a statement it has committed $200,000 and product donations to relief services, and is also working closely with local officials to help meet the needs of those affected.

Camp Hill Pa.-based Rite Aid Foundation also donated $50,000 to assist the wildfire relief efforts, it said in a press release. The immediate needs of farms affected by the wildfires are great, and the recovery process will be long and difficult in communities throughout the state. To donate to the California areas affected by the wildfires, visit the California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund website.  



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