Calif. Farmers and Workers Get Aid after Freeze Destroys Crops

Aid has cropped up for California workers and growers hurt by a devastating cold snap that froze more than $1 billion in crops and left thousands jobless.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he had issued an executive order to waive a one-week waiting period required before filing for unemployment. The frigid temperatures that dealt an $800 million blow to citrus growers and other industries earlier this month left more than 1,200 farm workers jobless.

“This way we can provide quick help for the people who need help right way,” the governor said during a visit to Tulare County where he met with citrus farmers and local officials. He had declared a state of emergency in 17 counties.

The governor has also asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare 13 additional counties disaster areas. If granted, they would join five others where farmers are eligible for low interest loans.

State Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, introduced a bill that would give California’s farmworkers the chance to earn up to $200 a week without having their unemployment benefits cut.

“These are the people who work to put food on our table, yet they are our most vulnerable population,” Maldonado said.

The state has received more than 12,000 claims for unemployment already, said Victoria Bradshaw, the state secretary for labor.

The state set up 19 help centers in the affected areas to help more farm laborers find jobs, get unemployment assistance, food and utility payment help.

Labor leaders said they are mounting a campaign through radio and working with state, local and nonprofit groups to get aid out to farmworkers who may not qualify for some government assistance because of their legal status.

“Whether you’re an employer or a farmworker, we want to make sure all are treated with the respect they deserve,” said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers union. Many workers will rely on donations from faith-based groups and other nonprofits, he said.

A group that works with seasonal farm workers, La Cooperativa Campesina de California, received a $50,000 grant from the state Thursday. Other organizations, including the California Farm Bureau, have made pledges and local fundraisers were under way throughout the San Joaquin Valley in the days following the freeze.

The help can’t come soon enough, said Juan Serano, 35, of Orosi, who lost his job in the citrus orchards because of the freeze. He was at a Dinuba job center Thursday looking for another job and assistance with utility bills.

“I usually work in oranges until April. Now I don’t have work until next season,” he said in Spanish.

Citrus industry leaders announced earlier this week that the freeze had ruined about 80 percent of the navel and Valencia orange crop, nearly all tangerines and had damaged lemon trees in Southern California.

The freeze was the worst the citrus industry has seen in more than a decade. A three-day freeze dealt a $700 million blow to growers in 1998 and a season’s crop was completely wiped out in 1990. It took farmers two years to recover from that freeze.

“This one is worse. The damage numbers continue to rise,” said state agriculture secretary A.G. Kawamura. “We feared $1 billion dollars worth of damage when the freeze was predicted but that number will surely be exceeded.”

Nurseries took a $418 million hit, Kawamura said.

Avocado growers saw as much as 30 percent of this year’s projected 400 million pound crop freeze and fall off the trees and strawberries will take at least six weeks to rebound, according to trade commissions for those crops.

Past freezes taught growers to get crop insurance and about 90 percent will recuperate some losses.

Agriculture is the main industry for many of the rural communities frozen over. The U.S. Small Business Administration will make low-interest loans available to nonagricultural businesses that have suffered financially because of the freeze in declared disaster areas, the agency announced.