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Ag experts continue to tally effects of freeze 

In a Jan. 22 letter to the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, San Luis Obispo County Agricultural Commissioner Bob Lilley reported the extent of damage to local agriculture because of the extremely low temperatures between Jan. 12 and 17.

"Temperatures were reported as low as 20 degrees in avocado and citrus growing locations, 14 degrees in vegetable and nursery production areas, and 3 degrees in vineyard production areas of the county," he wrote.

In the letter, Lilley estimated a 60 percent loss of the 2007 avocado crop as well as a comparable loss to the 2008 crop.

The California Avocado Commission (CAC) reported on Jan. 18 that accurate figures for fruit and tree damage wouldn't be available for several weeks, though early reports suggested that "losses could reach 20 to 30 percent of 2007's 400 million pound crop" and that the CAC received reports of extensive damage from San Diego County to the Central Coast.

"Even though the freeze caused serious damage to groves directly in its path, most of the state's 6,500 growers will be able to meet consumer demand in 2007 including the high-consumption Super Bowl weekend in the short term," Commission President Mark Affleck said in a release. "Longer term for 2007, imports from Chile and Mexico will partially offset the drop in California volume, though prices will undoubtedly rise."

SLO County's Lilley also reported that citrus crops could suffer a 50 percent loss in the county this year.

While loss estimates for local strawberries and nursery stock ranged from a 15 percent to a 1 percent reduction, respectively, the outlook for other ag industries is still unclear. Multiple nights colder than 10 degrees in local wine-grape growing regions put growers at a disadvantage since they won't know the extent of the damage until the dormant plants start to grow in the spring.

The disaster report put avocados at a loss of $11,540,000, strawberries at $3,983,000, head lettuce at $2,935,000, broccoli at $2,785,000, lemons at $2,069,000, and nursery stock at $1 million countywide.

Ultimately, the county ag commissioner estimated the total losses for the 2007 season to be $26 million limited to projected crop losses, which doesn't factor in other significant costs to the industry, including additional labor, energy, and replacement costs and measures taken to prevent potential damage.

The SLO County Agriculture Department reported that the damage information will be distributed to various state and federal agencies and elected representatives, though "there appears to be no need for a local disaster declaration because the Governor has already done one which includes SLO County."

That declaration from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger enabled Congress to start talking about allocating federal funding, according to Congresswoman Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara. She and 54 other Congress members have signed a letter asking the secretary of the Department of Agriculture to give favorable consideration to the interests of California farmers affected by the freeze.

On Jan. 23, the California Farm Bureau Federation reported that Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner had declared an emergency, which will allow insurance adjusters from other states to help address California's crop damage. That same report noted that the California Strawberry Commission had said farmers were on pace for a new record in the first two weeks of January, but production has ended since the freeze. Still, the bureau noted, cold weather often strengthens strawberry plants so they should produce more fruit as they come back into production.

On Jan. 19, Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, toured areas affected by the freezing temperatures to discuss relief measures. He joined a group of legislators and administration officials to tour facilities in Castroville, Fresno, and Bakersfield.

As a result, he introduced SB 116, which is designed to give relief to state farmworkers facing layoffs because of the freeze. The bill will allow such workers to earn up to $200 a week without unemployment benefits being cut and growers to retain the necessary workforce to clean up damaged orchards and fields.

"I am pleased that Democrats and Republicans are working together to address the needs of farmers and farm workers as a result of this freeze," Maldonado said in a statement. "I hope the legislature acts quickly and moves my bill forward so that we can get this relief to workers as soon as possible."

Amy Thoma, Maldonado's communications director, said that the senator asked the Joint Rules Committee on Jan. 23 to waive Joint Rule 55, which requires a bill to be in print for 30 days before it can move forward, and that they expect both the committee and the full Senate to waive that rule in the coming days a move that would require a 2/3 vote by both.

"We're doing everything we can to move this bill hastily and get it into law ASAP," Thoma explained.

If signed, the bill would become law immediately, she said.


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