Avocado Crops Hard Hit by Wildfires

October 30, 2007

Wind-driven wildfires that torched Southern California have charred fruit orchards, wilted flowers and littered the ground with avocados, delivering a devastating blow to area farmers already reeling from a deep winter freeze and the long drought that followed.

The final damage for growers will not be known until they are allowed to return to their lands, but some estimate losses in the millions of dollars.

“This situation here is the worst I’ve seen in terms of impact on individuals, families, homes, businesses,” said Charley Wolk, who has been farming in San Diego County for 35 years, and now manages hundreds of acres of mostly avocados, citrus and flowers.

Despite the destruction, consumers are unlikely to pay more at the supermarket because imported avocados and citrus fruits will make up for shortages.

In San Diego County, where flames ate into the dry, rolling terrain, the crop losses are greatest. County agriculture officials expect damage to dozens of commodities, from eggs to oranges, in the approximately 11,212 farm acres overcome by fire — enough to put a big dent into an industry that contributes about $1.4 billion yearly to the local economy.

“It’s looking cataclysmic at the moment,” said Eric Larson, head of the county Farm Bureau.

Avocados may be the hardest hit. California harvests nearly all domestically grown avocados, with San Diego County’s production leading the state. About one-third of the fruit’s crop in the state was believed to be in the fires’ path, with more groves threatened, agriculture officials said.

San Diego County also leads the state in the number of plant nurseries, many of which were right in the line of the flames, said Bob Falconer, executive vice president of the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers.

“Our losses will certainly be in the millions — it’s just a question of whether it’ll be tens of millions or hundreds of millions,” said John Demshki, president of the Corona-College Heights Orange & Lemon Association, which packs citrus and avocados for about 600 farmers in Southern California.

“This is serious — worse than 2003, worse than anything I’ve seen,” he said, referring to wildfires that tore through five Southern California counties four years ago.

The first field workers wandered back into a Christmas tree farm in northeastern San Diego County last Thursday, wearing masks as they tried to right trees that had been toppled by the wind and water any that had made it through the flames and the hot, dry winds.

“The place is a wreck, it looks like a moonscape around us, but we’re going to do what we can,” said Mat McKellips, a manager at the 260-acre Pinery Tree Farms.

Even in Los Angeles County, where agriculture has been pushed to the margins by decades of development, small farms that linger among Malibu’s million-dollar homes are reporting losses, said Ken Pellman, a spokesman for the county’s agriculture commissioner.

One ranch in the hills above Pepperdine University lost 80 percent of the avocados grown on a three-acre plot, five trucks and all 52 goats they kept to abate weeds and prevent the spread of fire.

“It’s not pretty — the freeze, the fire, the wind, and we’re expecting a 30 percent water cut because of the drought,” Wolk said.

Recovering from such crop and equipment losses is difficult, especially because many farmers often live and work on the same plot of land, said California Farm Bureau President Doug Mosebar.

Bill Brammer braved wind and smoke to try to save his home and produce on Be Wise Ranch in San Diego County before flames leapt onto his property, quickly devouring all he owned and years’ worth of work.

“I wanted to stay and fight it, but it was clear we weren’t going to make it, and my wife convinced me to get out,” he said. “We’re trying to stay busy, trying not to think about it … We’re lucky we’re alive.”

While California’s production may drop because of the wildfires, this is the time of year when Mexico and Chile start shipping their fruit north. Foreign growers can earn good money making up for any fire-caused shortage, Larson said.

But that also means California growers whose trees are left untouched by the fires’ hopscotch through the countryside can’t likely count on a better price for their fruit.

Still, some farmers remained confident. Even without power, phone lines or irrigation, McKellips seemed ready to weather this blow.

“We’ll pull through, it’s just another punch in the gut is what this is,” said McKellips.

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