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Tuesday, February 6, 2007
Last modified Wednesday, January 31, 2007 5:26 AM PST
State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth listens to Larry Saunders of Saunders Ranch in Fallbrook as Saunders talks about his problems collecting on insurance claims related to crop damage.
DAVID CARLSON Staff Photographer
State senator aims to help growers
By: NICOLE SACK - Staff Writer
TEMECULA -- State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth introduced legislation Tuesday to "soften the blow" of January's cold snap that hit growers statewide and caused more than $1 billion worth of damage to California crops.
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Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, has introduced three bills offering tax breaks for California farmers who suffered crop loss as well as those facing long-term recovery to damaged groves and nurseries.
"The growers in San Diego and Riverside counties that I represent, as well as farmers in more than 20 other counties around the state, have suffered tremendous damage from this freeze," Hollingsworth said in a press conference at the Calavo avocado packing house in Temecula. "Their losses will be in the millions and could last for years."
While the official numbers are yet to be released, representatives from the California Farm Bureau Federation estimate the statewide damage to crops to be $1.1 billion. Steve Pastor, executive director for Riverside County Farm Bureau, said more than $86 million of damage was done to this county's crops alone.
"This disastrous freeze wiped out crops overnight," Pastor said. "These measures are going to be good to help farmers get back on their feet."
The first bill introduced by Hollingsworth, SB 148, would provide a property tax exemption for fruit and nut trees severely damaged by the cold. The exemptions would be available to farmers for the next four years. The trees, although mature, would not be assessed at full value while they recover from the freeze.
Carlos Vasquez, field operations manager for Calavo, said it will take about two years for damaged avocado trees to again produce fruit. But during that time, farmers must maintain the groves.
"These growers will have no income coming in, but will still be incurring costs," Vasquez said. "The effects of this freeze will carry through the year."
The second bill, SB 149, would offer a sales tax exemption for materials farmers used to fight the cold snap, such as natural gas, gasoline and other fuels used to warm groves, orchards and greenhouses.
The successive nights of low temperatures, which dipped into the 20s from Jan. 12 to 16, took a severe toll on citrus fruit. While there have been widespread losses, the California Farm Bureau Federation reported frost-protection measures taken by farmers did succeed to some degree.
To make the tax breaks more timely, Hollingsworth is also pushing a third bill, SB 114, that would allow farmers to deduct losses against their prior year's income, as well as carry operating losses forward for five years.
The trio of bills has been introduced in the state Senate. No further action has been taken as the official language of the bills is being reviewed by the rules committee.
Hollingsworth hopes to fast-track the measures. The property tax relief bill would have to be approved prior to property assessments, which could delay the tax breaks if the Legislature drags its feet. Once approved, the freeze relief would be effective for four years, said Hollingsworth spokeswoman Erica Holloway. The exemptions would be on the 2007 tax rolls, she said.
While Hollingsworth's initiatives were welcomed, area growers asked if more immediate relief could be offered.
Larry Saunders, a Fallbrook avocado grower, said he wants the state to help expedite Federal Crop Insurance reimbursements, which he says generally take one year to be paid out.
"The losses are known; our premiums are paid. I know that the federal government subsidizes our insurance, but my loss is my loss," Saunders said. "It is not in the benefit of the farmer to have to wait a year to get some help."
Avocados have begun to drop from trees as a result of freeze damage to the fruit stems, what growers call "chill drop." Freezing temperatures weaken the stems and cause fruit to drop from the trees prematurely. The freeze could also harm buds for next season's avocado crop, Vasquez said.
The damage is also visible, said Chuck Bandy, avocado division manager for McMillan Farm Management.
"It looks like a flame thrower was taken to these trees," Bandy said. "Soon the trees will look like skeletons. They will regrow, but won't produce for two years. Growers are going to need assistance to make it through the next few years."
-- Contact staff writer Nicole Sack (951) 676-4315, Ext. 2616, or email@example.com.