By Janene Scully
Noozhawk North County Editor
Santa Barbara County Ag Commissioner Cathy Fisher gave a preliminary peek at the damage sustained by growers due to recent fires and floods, estimating during a forum in Santa Maria that losses so far have totaled nearly $20 million.
Fisher spoke during the “Growing Possibilities” Ag Forum held at the Santa Maria Fairpark on Feb. 2, organized by the Economic Alliance of Northern Santa Barbara County.
“We’ve had a tough time in this county the last couple of years,” Fisher said, noting the Alamo, Whittier and Thomas fires that burned in 2017.
There were 39 farmers who suffered a combined $12 million or more in direct losses from the Thomas Fire, Fisher said.
“I anticipate this number will go up,” she said.
Last month’s flooding and mudslide caused more than $6 million in losses and affected 37 farms, many of which were also affected by the fire, she added.
“Actually, a couple of farmers, they’re looking at 90-percent losses, which they may never recover from,” she added.
Other challenges facing the ag industry include the advent of legalized marijuana, she added.
“It will be interesting how this new industry will settle in our county and the role the ag department will have,” she said.
The state has issued more than 170 temporary licenses to potential cannabis businesses looking to launch in Santa Barbara County, with that number putting the county behind only Humboldt County, Fisher added.
She said her staff has started gathering data to produce the 2017 crop report, using information provided by growers and used by various sectors, including financial institutions and disaster relief.
“It’s so important that we have an accurate crop report that reflects truly all of your hard work,” she said, adding that information provided by the individual growers remains confidential.
The forum focused primarily on the crop that has held the annual report’s top spot — strawberries.
Roland Fumasi, vice president and senior analyst of Rabobank’s RaboResearch Food and Agribusiness sector, spoke about Santa Maria’s role in the berry industry and the growth of the red fruit among consumers.
“If berries as a category is the crown in the produce department, strawberries are the crown jewel of that crown,” Fumasi said.
He also talked about the how important the Santa Maria shipping district has become to the strawberry industry, with an increase in volume.
“The point is Santa Maria has become a critical part of the strawberry industry and one of the areas, as least in the U.S. the one area, that has shown consistent growth in their industry over the last decade,” he said. “So again, hats off to all of you.”
Labor continues to be a challenge facing strawberry growers, Fumasi said, adding the long-term solution is technology that makes berry picking more efficient.
Former Ag Secretary A.G. Kawamura, who served from 2003 through 2010 and farms in Orange County, said the industry will remain viable since people must eat and the food source still will be needed.
“In the past, our challenges of agriculture have come down to a very simple four word phrase — successful agriculture sustains civilization,” he added.
Some people alive today farmed when tractors did not exist, he said.
“It’s just hard to fathom what’s going to happen in the next hundred years, or 10 years or 50 years,” he added.
In an emotional presentation near the end of the forum, long-time Santa Maria Valley strawberry grower Daren Gee was presented with an Extraordinary Achievement Award to recognize the innovations he and his DB Specialty Farms have brought to the industry.
“His work and experience would prove invaluable to the development of the berry industry in Santa Maria Valley,” said George Adam, co-lead of the EconAlliance Ag Team.
The event also included the Strawberry Sector Recognition Awards, with special honors to William “Bill” Moncovich from California Giant Berry Farms.
Strawberry industry pioneer families — those growing for 35 years or longer in the county — also were recognized. They included the Alton Allen, Luis Chavez, Miguel Chavez, Abel Maldonado Sr. and Sheehy families.