Natural Foods Merchandiser

Wildfires' impact on ag still in question

Not even the guvernator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, could protect Southern California from the devastation of recent wildfires. On Oct. 21, 23 fires began to rage across the area, with two still not fully contained as of press time. Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Riverside and San Diego counties were all hit.

Initial damage estimates exceed $1.5 billion, with more than 2,000 homes destroyed, as well as hundreds of other structures. More than half a million people were forced to evacuate their homes, and the death toll stood at 12, with dozens injured, many of them among the more than 8,000 firefighters responding to the blazes.

California's agriculture was also among the injured. Although statistics are far from complete, the California Farm Bureau Federation released initial estimates. Riverside County: Nearly $15 million in losses, mostly from the windstorms that accompanied the fires. Affected crops included nursery products such as plants, bulbs, sod and avocados. Milk and egg production was also impacted.

San Diego County: Estimated losses from just one county wildfire stood at $30 million, including $2.5 million in losses to 486 acres of avocados, and smaller losses in lemon, persimmon and macadamia nut crops. Data was not yet in for the Harris, Poomacha—which was still active at press time—and Witch Creek fires.

Ventura County: Windstorms blew an estimated $10 million to $15 million worth of avocados from trees. Officials believe the totals will go higher after damage to wind-scarred lemons and other crops are tallied at harvest early next year. Overall, the California Avocado Commission estimated a 10 percent loss in avocado production in the current crop year, which it values at approximately $35 million. Figures include both fire and wind damage to crops, but not damage to, or loss of, trees, which might take years to fully assess. Despite the losses to this year's crop, the Avocado Commission reported that supplies should remain near average levels.

Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., said the damage to organic agriculture should be minimal, as the areas affected by the wildfires are not the primary California ag land.

"At the moment, I don't see the winter market being impacted," he said. "However, that's the biggest picture. Individual farmers that have long-standing accounts with some buyers have lost quite a bit. It would be hard to read, ?This won't have a big impact,' when you're looking at a burnt countryside. We have to respect the devastation within the context of the larger market and do our best to assist the recovery."

Scowcroft pointed out that organic farmers such as Bill Bremmer and his Be Wise Ranch were devastated. Bremmer, who was president of California Certified Organic Farmers and helped draft the state and federal organic legislation, lost his home, greenhouse and farm office, and suffered major crop damage.

In response to the wildfires, CCOF, Ecological Farming Association, California Alliance of Family Farmers and the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Initiative have created the Organic Farming Wildfire Relief Fund. Scott Hawkins, managing director of Earl's Organic Produce and an EFA board member, said the fund will benefit not only the farmers affected, but also the communities. "This is being done in support of community, both the San Diego community and the organic farming community within that," he said. "We will find ways to support the farm workers as well, many of whom live in the shadows of the farm economy in [San Diego]. That's also a concern of ours."

Donate by calling Hawkins at 831.239.1899 or visit the CCOF Web site,

Bryce Edmonds is a California-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 12/p.17

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