Wednesday, November 14, 2007

California farmworkers struggle after fires

Disaster News Network: Picking through the charred leaves and crisp remains of fruit and flowers, growers and farmworkers in San Diego County may feel alone in the fields. Each farmer has had to take a look at the wildfire damage to his crops and make the hard decisions about how to handle the situation and get back on the road to recovery. For farmworkers, their road back to recovery will be especially long and difficult.

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said there are few agencies offering fire recovery planning assistance to area growers. "They're pretty much on their own," he said. Larson's organization recognizes that each farm and nursery has been affected in a unique way because of the way natural disasters grab with indiscriminate fingers at one location while ignoring other spots nearby.

Overall, he estimated, the county's $1.5 billion agricultural industry suffered a $42 million loss from the recent wildfires. At some farms, there was only minor damage. At others, there was 100 percent loss.

For those who work in the fields and whose livelihood depends on the crops, the fires imposed a more personal toll. Most live paycheck to paycheck and income lost during the fires has left the already struggling workers in dire financial need. Most of the workers in the San Diego area are permanent employees who work year-round, Larson said. Migrant workers are added to the rolls in the spring to pick strawberries and in late summer to harvest tomatoes. The rest live in the urban areas of the county.

"Many of them are at an economic disadvantage already. They are in single paycheck houses and are either uninsured or underinsured," said Michelle Scott of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)…

…The Farm Bureau and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are offering assistance to the farm owners and growers. Farmworkers were put out of work by the fires and were not paid while the farms and nurseries burned.

…Larson said the full extent of the damage to crops won't be known for some time. Dawn Neilson, of the department of agriculture, weights and measures for San Diego County, said that the figures for losses for tomato, avocado and floral crops might not be compiled for several months. "We have a preliminary figure about the losses at the farms and nurseries in the county, but we won't have the final figures for some time," she said.

UMCOR has set up a variety of assistance programs designed to help farmworkers navigate through the difficult times. Donations were being solicited to help those who lost paychecks or who may have been injured by the fires while still at work…

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