Lessons from past freezes: Be insured

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FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – As the chill air descended on California last weekend, citrus farmers were already prepared for the worst. Past freezes in 1990 and 1998 taught the state’s growers to insure crops that are one frigid night, hail storm or pest infestation away from disaster.

State agriculture officials said Thursday that they were still assessing the damage from five consecutive nights of subfreezing temperatures in California’s fertile Central Valley, and they could not yet estimate how much would be paid out by insurers.

With losses to the state’s citrus crop alone totaling an estimated $1 billion, the tally is certain to be considerable and will give growers, packers and shippers some relief from their otherwise devastating losses. But crop insurance will only soften the blow, said Shirley Batchman, spokeswoman for the trade group California Citrus Mutual.

“They’re not going to be made whole again,” she said.

Growers insure their crop for about 65 to 70 percent of its value, on average. Up to half of their insurance costs is subsidized by the federal government, said Bob Blakely, director of grower services for California Citrus Mutual.

So, a farmer who spends $2,000 per acre to grow oranges, may get $1500 back from their insurer. But that’s still a $500-per-acre loss, plus living expenses and the costs of planting next year’s crop, Batchman said.

In 1990, fewer than 100 of the state’s roughly 3,000 citrus growers at the time had crop insurance. That year, some growing regions stayed frosty for more than a week, wiping out the crop and damaging the trees so severely that it took farmers two years to bounce back.

“I tried for two years to sell crop insurance to orange farmers,” said Bill Nielsen, an agent with Nielsen & Associates Insurance in Exeter. “They all said, ‘For what?’ The last freeze before the big 1990 one was decades before. So I guess people forgot citrus could freeze.”

Nielsen said more growers got the message after the next big freeze, which came just eight years later. The three-day freeze in December 1998 cost growers more than $500 million – 85 percent of their crop at the time, according to state officials.

About 3,000 farmers – 90 percent of California citrus growers – will get some insurance payout from this week’s cold snap, Blakely said.

Other businesses that rely on the winter citrus season, such as packing houses, also sometimes buy insurance, but their coverage is not federally subsidized.

State politicians are also trying to secure aid for some 12,500 workers who may lose their jobs because of the crop damage. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said the state would offer unemployment assistance. And U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s staff plans to meet Friday with aides to other elected officials to discuss plans for helping those affected by the freeze and ask the federal government for disaster aid. Inspectors were in the groves Thursday slicing fruit and checking for dry-freeze damage to oranges, tangerines and lemons. Some may still be OK to sell, and some of it may be salvageable for juice, but at least half of it was destroyed, according to California Citrus Mutual.

Nielsen said this year’s citrus crop was looking like the best in years, with good-sized fruit and high prices for growers, he said.

“It’s just a really sad deal,” he said. “This year was supposed to be a knock-em dead season.”

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