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Ventura County Farmhands Eligible for Relief

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal officials agreed Thursday to extend emergency aid to Ventura County field workers left jobless by a severe pre-Christmas freeze, expanding a disaster declaration that had previously only applied to seven counties in the Central Valley.

The declaration by the Federal Emergency Management Agency paves the way for local field hands and packinghouse workers to apply for a range of federal assistance, including grants for temporary housing, free food programs and extended unemployment benefits.

The decision comes a month after the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, under pressure by farm worker advocates, voted to seek federal relief for farm laborers affected by the winter cold snap.

“Better late than never,” said Santos Gomez, lead attorney for Oxnard-based California Rural Legal Assistance. The legal aid group had argued that county officials weren’t doing enough to determine how badly the county’s farm labor force had been hurt by the freeze.

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“The focus now needs to shift to community outreach,” Gomez said. “But we still don’t know what the process is going to look like, so how can we begin to do outreach?”

Four consecutive nights of below-freezing temperatures in late December inflicted $657 million in damage to California’s citrus industry, including $74.3 million in damage to Ventura County’s lemon, orange and avocado crops.

In the ensuing weeks, the seven hardest-hit counties--Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, Monterey and Tulare--were declared disaster areas by state and federal officials. But Ventura County took a more leisurely approach, with local emergency services officials conducting a survey and initially determining there was no need to apply for federal aid.

The decision drew quick criticism from farm worker advocates, who argued that the effects of the harsh weather had not been thoroughly examined and would not be known for weeks to come. The accusation got the attention of Supervisor John Flynn, who led the push to declare Ventura County a disaster area and secure federal assistance.

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“This is very good news,” said Flynn, of FEMA’s expanded disaster declaration. “A lot of people in Ventura County were hurt by the freeze and continue to need help.”

Farm worker representatives estimate that 15% to 25% of the county’s farm labor force--as many as 5,000 workers--were affected by the freeze, either through job losses or reduced work hours.

But Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, said growers have told him the numbers aren’t that high.

Furthermore, Laird said he worries that the emergency declaration was based more on political considerations than it was a statistical analysis of unemployment and underemployment in the local farm industry.

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Laird pointed out that county supervisors raised the issue last month when they placed longtime Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail on six months probation, citing his failure to keep them informed about crucial farmland issues.

“If there are people out there who were laid off as a result of the freeze, I think it’s totally appropriate for them to receive whatever benefits are available to them,” Laird said. “Unfortunately this has become so politicized that it appears we may have lost the focus of whether there’s truly a need or not.”

Federal and state officials still must work out the details of how farm workers can apply for aid and what the criteria will be. But farm worker advocates say they believe the need will quickly become apparent as they start spreading the word that the federal aid is available.

“This is not about politics,” Gomez said.

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“To characterize this as political is a slap in the face to farm workers and other poor people in this county who were affected by this disaster.”


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