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Rain Is a Curse and Blessing for Farmers : Agriculture: Losses in California already amount to $86 million. But orange growers are sitting pretty.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

California farmers have already suffered estimated losses of $86 million, even though weeks of heavy rains have been a boon to some orange growers and a guarantee of more water for agriculture next summer.

“There’s a saying: ‘Mother Nature’s the farmer’s best friend and worst enemy,’ ” said Bob Krauter, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau.

In a $20-billion industry, the rains have not yet been a major disaster, but many farms have been damaged. More than 37,000 acres of agricultural land have been eroded or flooded so badly that the crops were washed out. Another 91,000 acres have been heavily damaged.

Flowers in Alameda County, almonds in Glenn County north of Sacramento and strawberries in Ventura County have been hit the hardest. Field crops and greenhouses statewide have been damaged by flooding.

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Growers of cut flowers in Alameda County have reported $11 million in rain damage so far, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Flower growers in Ventura County have suffered more than $1 million in losses.

Almond trees are being awakened early from dormancy by the unusually warm rains. Tejon Ranch Co. in Lebec has reported the loss of 200 acres of almond trees, uprooted from the soggy soil by winds that reached more than 100 m.p.h.

Ventura County has experienced the most agricultural damage of any county in the state--$22.7 million so far--with swamped strawberries, celery, lettuce, broccoli and other crops. Lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower have also been harmed in the Imperial Valley, as have Oriental vegetables and lettuce in Los Angeles County.

Neil Nagata, vice president of Nagata Bros. Farms, which grows strawberries on 40 acres in Oceanside, has lost about a quarter of his early crop. He has not yet estimated the value of the rain-pocked fruit he has had to discard.

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“But it’s substantial,” Nagata said, “and it’s just the beginning of the season. There’s very little you can do. It’s just out there in the open.”

Faring better are the orange growers, whose crops are unharmed by rain. Some in the industry are praising what they call the “divine prorate,” referring to a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to stabilize orange prices that ended last year. Under that program, so-called prorates set limits on how much fruit could be shipped to market during the harvest, to keep supply from exceeding demand.

In California’s orange groves, farmers credit the storms in large part for accomplishing the same thing. Winter navel orange prices haven’t dropped as expected during a normal harvest. Saturated soil has kept heavy equipment out of the groves, lowering inventory in the packing sheds and slowing delivery of oranges to grocery stores.

“We’ve probably had two good, full picking days since the first of the year,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, the citrus producers’ trade association. “This constant interruption has left a lot of workers out of work,” he said, “but the prices have been very good. . . . That’s positive for the growers.”

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Nelsen said consumers can expect fewer supermarket promotional sales on oranges this year but a longer season for buying California fruit--extending beyond the usual mid-May switch to Valencia oranges to as late as mid-June.


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