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California Fires Hit Avocados Hardest; Lush Avocado Acreage A Firebreak Spares County From Worse Damage

All America has been aghast watching the fires rage in southern California. It is always difficult to gauge the impact on the industry in the midst of a natural disaster, so we’ve been standing by for more clarity. Then all the sudden, the Associated Press came out with a bizarre report exaggerating the possible damage to the avocado crop.

A destroyed avocado grove in Orange County shows the power of Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires that swept across large swaths of the State’s most important avocado production areas this week. Despite the damage to this and some other groves, the green irrigated avocado groves are not readily combustible fuel sources for wildfires and the bulk of California’s acreage was spared.

Fire rushed through dry chaparral and across ridges. An avocado grove on the ridge in the foreground was scorched by the fire but the trees will be salvageable. The Santiago Fire still burns out of control in the background.

In most cases the lush greenery of avocado orchards offered little fuel to the firestorms. The brown colored leaves in sections of this avocado grove are from small fires that started from blowing embers but with little to burn were self-extinguished.

According to Guy Witney, Director of Industry Affairs, California Avocado Commission, the AP report that 20,000 acres lost is not accurate. He says there are 24,000 acres total in the county, unimaginable that the loss was 80 percent of total. Likely 10 to 20 percent, perhaps 5,000 to maybe 8,000 acres are damaged on the high side. In order to gain some clarity, we asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to speak with several individuals who could help provide insight as to what the situation really is.

Guy Witney
Director of Industry Affairs
California Avocado Commission

Q: How is the avocado industry coping with the California wild fires?

A: In terms of crops here, the avocado industry by far has the largest investment. Fifty-five percent of total acres are concentrated in North San Diego County and Southwestern Riverside County areas. Those are the areas worst hit as far as we can determine because there is still very little access. Avocados are a big enterprise here, but other produce crops and agricultural industries are affected as well. Oceanside Farms, large tomato growers, are located very near the flames, but the fires didn’t hit them.

The first big arson fire overtook the area Sunday night five miles upwind in a wildlife preserve, and the wind was flowing extremely hard with gusts of 40 to 50 miles an hour straight down to Irvine Ranch, in Orange County, and literally burned from one end to the other of the largest grower in the country.

Q: What you describe sounds horrific.

A: The fire caused considerable pain and damage to this ranch, but it could have been worse but for avocados coming from tropical trees, green, lush and full of water. I looked with an executive at Irvine Company, one of the top five avocado growers in the state, to assess the damage. Approximately 30 percent or about 300 acres were seriously damaged, and 100 acres of trees need to be replanted there.

The main point the Associated Press put out in a statement mid-afternoon [Wednesday] of 20,000 acres were lost is not accurate. There are 24,000 acres total in the county. It is unimaginable the loss was 80 percent. It is likely 10 percent to 20 percent, perhaps 5,000 to maybe 8,000 acres, are damaged on the high side.

Avocados are more of a fire break than acting as fuel. Of course, there are tragic cases, where the fire literally cooked very-hard-to-burn moist trees. I’ve heard back from growers that the intense energy of the fires and wind generated so much heat that their houses and livelihoods did in fact burn to the ground. In most cases, though, the avocado groves have been welcome relief to firefighters. They actually protected the houses in the surrounding areas.

Definitely on an individual basis, there have been very serious and sad situations where farmers have lost homes and orchards and it has been devastating. Obviously we are concerned about the crop but our first priority is their well being. Our immediate reaction is helping people who have been displaced. There are reporters contacting me like vultures wanting to interview growers in their plight. It’s very hard for these guys right now. Some have lost big money. Some are third generation growers and this is the end for them.

Water rationing is coming January 1 in many areas with this drought. Having this fire come through after losing 27 percent of their crop with the freeze, facing a couple of years of drought, and then the onslaught of foreign fruit and dealing with new regulations is a tremendous amount to handle. Growers are being hit from all sides.

Dave Kranz
Manager Media Services
California Farm Bureau Federation
Sacramento, California

Q: Could you update us on the damage in different industry segments from the wildfires?

A: Everybody is looking for hard numbers on how many acres and what proportion of crop and these are very hard to come by. A lot of people are restricted from going back to their farms and nurseries. Many are under mandatory evacuation. It will take some time to assess the damage.

We’ve seen inaccurate reports. I was a little shocked when that 20,000 number of acres destroyed came out in the press. The facts just didn’t add up. There was a story in the San Diego newspaper Thursday morning that quoted the County Agriculture Commissioner’s office with a more reasonable account. It said 11,000 acres of farmland was in the path of the fire and roughly 5,900 acres of that was devoted to avocados. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re damaged.

In these awful wildfires, you’ll see three houses standing and three wiped out and nobody knows why. The same scenario happens with avocado groves. Some may look wiped out and turn out to be OK. The bark may appear charred, but the tree itself will be ok. Farmers will drill into trunks and take core samples to figure if trees are still viable.

On the other side of the coin, there will be trees that look fine but won’t come through. For example, if leaves on the floor of the grove are burning hot next to a tree, the heat might have damaged the tree. It’s an awfully complicated thing to figure out. There are lot of moving parts; where did the fire hit, what percentage of the grove was affected. There may be short term affect on this year’s crop but in the long term it’s ok.

There are also impacts unrelated to the fire. For example, strong winds that propelled the fires caused damage in areas where avocado growers reported fruit blown off the trees. This is not uncommon, but because winds were stronger than usual, the impact was greater. Some of that fruit can be salvaged if picked up fast enough.

We have no specific reports of people getting hurt. But given the scope of the damage, it’s entirely possible if not likely some farmers or nursery people lost homes and livelihoods. The thing about farmers is that field damage can cause loss of crops far into the future. We’re working on staying in contact with legislatures, both congress and state agencies so relief is made available and remains available, particularly to people who have suffered severely.

Q: Have you been in contact with any of the growers directly to get first-hand accounts?

A: We are in Sacramento hundreds of miles away, but we’re working with colleagues down south, posting new information at least one a day on our website.

We’ve read about a couple of small scale vegetable growers that had to evacuate and couldn’t irrigate their crops, and it’s been very dry there. They are returning to farms and finding a lot of their fruits and vegetables destroyed. I read one account from a grower who sells direct to local restaurants in San Diego County. Because they’ve evacuated, they haven’t been able to tend to their crops as they would normally.

This is a diverse farming region, encompassing 12 of the largest agriculture producers in the U.S. Some people don’t realize north of San Diego County proper is ag-based with 200 crops. Our colleagues tell us just about all will be affected to some degree because of the winds.

From what we’ve seen, strawberries will be ok. With lemons, strong winds are an issue, knocking the fruit together and causing scarring, but this is not a big problem. At this time of year in that region, those are crops that could be impacted. San Diego County is one of the largest producers of flowers and nursery crops in California. That’s one sector trying to get a better handle on the situation since many were forced to evacuate and have been unable to irrigate plants.

This is not the first problem farmers have had to confront. They had the damaging freeze in January, drought for a couple of years, particularly in Southern California, and now strong winds and fires. Some of the farmers are dealing with all of these. If a tree was weakened by the freeze, and then weakened by the drought, it makes it that much more prone to trauma and much less able to withstand it.

Eric Larsen
Executive Director
San Diego County Farm Bureau

Q: Tell us what you’ve learned being so close to the action?

A: I’ve been talking to people all day. We’ve got stories of produce folks who have lost their homes in residential neighbors. Then in the field, it’s been so chaotic and fires are still burning so reports continue to trickle in. The amount of acreage damaged is estimated to be in excess of 10,000 acres. The largest amount of land damaged is grazing land, and all that can be restored with some good rain.

The avocado crop probably has the greatest amount of lost acreage. Early estimates show that it amounts to one half of the total damage in acreage, by virtue of maybe just bad luck. When you look at the footprint of where the fires ran, those are all in avocado producing areas.

Q: Have you been able to get a first hand look at the damage?

A: I can’t get through the fire line. Growers can’t get back to farms to get sprinklers going because of security and mandatory evacuations. Only those aggressive reporters that slog out into the fire areas find someone to quote. We understand the need for coverage, but it’s already too much stress and anxiety for these folks who have lost homes and business and are still facing potential fires and further ramifications.

We spoke with one avocado grower who lost 25 to 30 percent of his production. Another 45 to 50 percent and a third 20 to 25 percent. That gives your readers a sense for what people in the path of fires are experiencing.

The bright thing to report is that avocado groves acted as fire breaks and burned themselves out to protect property on the other sides. We had the driest year in history in Southern California, and very, very, dry brush helped fuel these catastrophic events. Areas adjacent to avocado groves benefited by the irrigation and moisture in branches and trunks and served a viable purpose as fire suppressors.

I will be conducting field observations [today] and will build a much better report based on what I’ve seen to share with you when I return.

Dan Legard
Director of Research
California Strawberry Commission

Q: Has the strawberry industry been spared from the wildfires that have engulfed much of Southern California?

A: The fire hasn’t caused damage to strawberries. We’ve had some high wind damage in the Oxnard area mainly; sandblasting of the plants twisting them around and beating them up a bit. But the plants should come out of that. This is just a setback, but the crop should be fine. There may be some concerns from new plantings.

We’re fortunate the fields weren’t affected directly. The fires got close in some areas of Orange County, but fortunately they didn’t affect the growers themselves.

Q: Has the evacuation process created hardships?

A: Evacuations have caused minimal impact. Clearly evacuation traffic and closed roads made it so growers weren’t able to get around, but these barriers didn’t last long relative to the damage done to other crops and the costs to those growers.

We don’t anticipate a large impact from this event in production for the strawberry industry. Clearly it caused problems. With the strong winds, plastic was blown loose, issues with running water, etc., leading to additional expenses and hardships for growers.

The plants in the affected areas with fruit on them now are summer-planted varieties. But that shouldn’t impact the market, since we’re still able to harvest fruit in the North. Since it’s dry up in the North and there haven’t been heavy rains, losses from wind damage in the South will be offset by continued production in the North. We got spared largely. We anticipate the overall market will be fine.

Mira also checked in with a local, Mike Spinazzola, to find out if all is OK with him. We had spoken with Mike back in December to get input on food safety — a piece you can read here.

Mike Spinazzola
Diversified Restaurant Systems

Q: Are you OK? How is everyone around you fairing since the wildfires swept through your area?

A: Fortunately everyone close to me is doing fine. We all had to evacuate. It was mandatory. None of my close friends lost homes in this one. One of my closest friends lost his home in the last fire.

Everyone had to leave the area. Stores and restaurants closed down. Subway was putting together a program to deliver sandwiches to evacuation centers. A lot of volunteers went down to help. San Diego has done a terrific job bonding together.

One of the touching moments to me was hearing that Qualcomm Stadium executives managing the crisis turned down volunteers because so many people wanted to help.

Q: Where did you evacuate to?

A: We went to a hotel. My father and brother and I were all in mandatory evacuation areas so we went downtown. Several others went West and South to the beaches. We had friends who couldn’t get hotel rooms downtown Monday evening. We’re in the Carmel Valley/Del Mar area. The fire didn’t get within eight miles but it got very smoky.

Restaurants in certain areas on the border off the freeway opened up before residents were allowed in their homes. Other restaurants opened up for people to have dinners and watch the TV news. is a good website to view images of people impacted by the fire. For those who want to help, there’s a fund for the San Diego Red Cross or Wildfires Relief 2007.

Q: Has your business been impacted in any way?

A: In terms of my company, we’re just offices here. The fields and various crops we are using are not in San Diego, so there is very little impact other than avocados. My understanding is that 30-plus percentage of crop will be lost, and with the air out there — particles and ashes — it will be difficult for people out picking. We’re having troubles getting the San Diego avocados to the distribution center. But that’s a minor setback.

The produce industry is filled with good people used to dealing with weather-related catastrophes and banding together to overcome tragedy.

And the California Avocado Commission also provided this supplemental information:


IRVINE, Calif. (Oct. 25, 2007) — Wildfires that swept through Southern California this week affected the state’s largest avocado growing region, but the California avocado crop remains intact, according to the California Avocado Commission.

“Our primary concern has been the personal safety of our growers and their families,” said Commission President Mark Affleck. “Some growers have suffered losses and we will do everything possible to help them through this difficult time.”

Although damage reports are still coming in, and fires continue to burn in portions of San Diego County, accounts of avocado losses have been overstated.

“Early reports from other sources stated that 20,000 acres of avocados were lost in the fires in San Diego. This information was incorrect,” said Guy Witney, the Commission’s Director of Industry Affairs. “The actual area affected is expected to be only a fraction of that amount.”

Before the fires, California was expected to produce about 365 million pounds of avocados during the 2007-08 crop year. The Commission is now reevaluating the crop, which is likely to be

10 percent smaller than initial projections because of the fires and Santa Ana winds.

“We’ll know more in the coming weeks,” Witney said. “The Commission will issue an updated crop estimate once all the information is in.”

And the California Avocado Commission also provided this supplemental information:

Santa Anna winds fanned wildfires in Southern Califonia this week, scorching orchards in the south and whipping fruit from trees across the industry from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border. Overall preliminary crop losses across the avocado industry are estimated to be around 10%. Prior to this disaster growers reported the total crop to be 365 million pounds for 2008, however, considering the past four days of wind and wildfires, the crop is more likely to come in at around 325 million pounds by season end in November 2008.

The wildfires that swept across Southern California this week forced the evacuation of thousands of growers from their homes and groves, and caused considerable anxiety for many of our industry’s farm families. As the fires and smoke subsided, the avocado community was saddened to learn of individual loses to homes, property and groves. The California Avocado Commission is deeply concerned for the safety and welfare of every one of the more than 3,000 farm families affected by theses devastating wildfires and will do all in our power to provide support during recovery.

We know from information gathered by our staff, called in by growers, reported by media, and from federal, state and county agencies, that while many families have suffered serious losses the situation could have been considerably more serious. Our deepest sympathies go out to all those who face despair and anguish from their loss, and our gratitude to those who have worked tirelessly to save properties and lives in these firestorms.

Once evacuees are allowed to return home to their farms, and qualified local survey crews are able to assess crop and tree losses in burn areas first hand, it is impossible to provide an accurate assessment of crop and property losses. National media reports of avocado acreage losses amounting to 20,000 in San Diego County are grossly exaggerated. In total, San Diego County avocado orchards cover 24,000 acres, these groves are cover the hillsides between the small north county towns of Fallbrook, Valley Center, Pauma Valley and other small close-knit communities. It is likely that severe damage has occurred in places, but generally avocado groves are far less combustible than chaparral, oak scrub, pine trees or citrus orchards. In most cases, even fast moving fires with an abundant fuel supply are slowed, even stopped, by the green “firebreak” offered by the lush canopies of avocado trees.

Early tree loss estimates from growers and grove mangers in the field have been coming in to the Commission both voluntarily and through direct contacts made by staff. Our first rough estimates by area are:

Growing Area Producing Acres Fire Loss Acreage % of Producing Acres
Orange County 1390 300 21.6%
San Diego Co. 24,171 2500 10.0%
Riverside County/Temecula 7,664 300 4%

Also the California Farm Bureau Federation recommended this most recent summary for perspective on crop size by location, etc.:

Up-to-date information on the fires themselves can be found here:

The California Farm Bureau Federation is publishing frequent updates of damage by crop and section. We publish the most recent update below and you can continue to get updates at:

Wildfires and strong winds have harmed crops and livestock in many parts of Southern California. Percentages of damage and dollar-loss figures will be hard to come by for several days, because farmers, ranchers, nursery owners and agricultural officials will need time to assess losses once the fires and winds have died down.

The California Farm Bureau Federation reports the following impacts on individual crops and commodities, based on interviews today with individual farmers and ranchers and with representatives of commodity organizations:

Avocados: Avocados have been affected by both wind and fire. Marketers have estimated that at least 10 percent of the state’s overall crop will be lost. Impact on prices and supplies will be moderated by the availability of avocados from other growing regions. A California Avocado Commission representative says fierce winds blew fruit from trees in Orange, Riverside, San Diego and Ventura counties. Groves have also been damaged by fire, particularly in San Diego County. Emergency officials estimate as much as one third of the state’s acreage stood in the path of wildfires. The commission will survey farmers to gather updated information about losses, but the combination of wind and fire causes serious concerns.

Lemons: Farmers report wind damage in lemon groves, as lemons knocked against limbs during the windstorms. That can cause scarring on the outside of the fruit. There are no estimates yet as to how much of the crop has been affected. The grower organization California Citrus Mutual says it does not expect significant damage to the crop.

Winegrapes: Most winegrapes have been harvested in Southern California, but there’s concern about fire damage to vineyards, particularly in the Ramona Valley region of San Diego County. The California Association of Winegrape Growers reports that one Ramona-area winery was destroyed by fire. The Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner’s office says winegrapes grown near Malibu escaped damage; one farm in that area has resumed harvest.

Nursery crops: The California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers says it is working to assess damage. Many nurseries have been evacuated and their owners have not been able to return to learn if there has been damage. San Diego County leads the state in production of nursery crops and a number of plant nurseries sit in the path of wildfires.

Pumpkins: Dust blown by high winds scarred pumpkins awaiting sale for Halloween; the Riverside County Farm Bureau said pumpkins there had been “sandblasted.” A popular pumpkin patch in the Saugus area suffered fire damage. The Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner’s office said the fire scorched pumpkins and also burned storage bins, hay bales, antique vehicles and one home on the property.

Strawberries: Most strawberries grow in regions near the coast. The California Strawberry Commission says farmers have not reported damage to date. Southern California farmers have just planted berries to be harvested near Christmas. Farmers express concern about the hot, dry weather, which is not good for the strawberry plants. Farmers are irrigating their plants to compensate and the commission says it expects little impact on production.

Chickens: The Pacific Egg and Poultry Association reports fire damage to some egg ranches in San Diego County. It has received no reports of hen losses, but it says outbuildings have burned. In addition, ranches have lost power at times. Most farms have backup generators to keep cooling and ventilation systems in operation. Local authorities have worked with the Highway Patrol to maintain deliveries of feed to egg ranches and to assure that eggs can be delivered.

Dairy cattle: The state Department of Food and Agriculture and other agencies have been working to make sure milk tanker trucks can reach dairy farms in the fire area. Cows must be milked regularly to protect their health and the perishable milk must be moved quickly to processing facilities, which is complicated by road closures in Southern California. Dairy farms in the Ontario area have suffered structural damage from the strong winds. Farmers have been removing wind-blown debris from their farms to protect their cows, and keeping the cows cool by using misters.

Beef cattle: Ranchers in Southern California say they expect to see beef cattle and other livestock lost in the wildfires. Many ranchers have been unable to return to their land to determine the fate of their animals. Most California rangelands were already in very poor condition because of dry weather, and a San Diego County cattle rancher told us the fire had burned what forage remained on his land. As a result, he said he would be forced to sell his remaining heifers, though he will keep any pregnant cows and feed them hay. A Ventura County rancher and brand inspector says she expects it will take a week after the fires are out for anyone to be certain how many cattle have been lost. She expects the number to be low, though, in part because herd sizes had already been reduced because of the drought.

Horses: Thousands of horses have been evacuated to fairgrounds and other facilities. More than 2,400 have been sheltered at the Del Mar fairgrounds in San Diego County. The California Department of Food and Agriculture says it is working to supply hay for the animals. For every 100 horses being sheltered, officials need to find about 1 ton of hay per day.

Goats: Fire killed 52 goats that gathered in a shelter near Malibu, according to the Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner’s office. In a sad irony, the owner kept the goats to lease to landowners for brush clearing, in order to reduce fire danger.

The California Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest farm organization, works to protect family farms and ranches on behalf of nearly 92,000 members.

We should have much more accurate information early next week. In the meantime, those who want to help can donate to the San Diego Red Cross here.

Also to those in the industry affected by the fire, many Pundit readers have asked if people need to borrow office space, need clothing sent or require other kinds of help. If you contact us here. and describe your need, we will try to play matchmaker.

This is obviously a serious situation, made worse by evacuations that prevent people from tending their crops. Maybe the industry can take some solace from the fact that well irrigated avocado trees may actually have sapped strength from the blaze.

God speed to all affected.

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