(Nov. 2) After visiting avocado ranches and nurseries around Fallbrook and Ramona that were devastated by the wildfires that swept through southern California, A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said the area had suffered some of the most extensive destruction he had ever seen.

“It was sobering to see how much damage can come from these fires,” he said Oct. 31. “But in the same way we saw the damage from the January freeze, the damage will continue to manifest itself over time.”

Kawamura, who toured the area Oct. 30 along with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the mandatory evacuation could have an unintended consequence on agriculture.

“When you have an evacuation one of the most critical things about agriculture labor as opposed to manufacturing is agriculture is a caretaking business, where the workers care for living organism, plants and animals,” he said. “If you remove the caretaker for any length of time you have the potential for the collapse of the population. That is something that is lost on a lot of people.”

Responding to alleged mistreatment of illegal immigrants during the evacuation, Kawamura said the enormity of evacuating nearly a half million people was a challenge.

“One of the challenges that we’ll continue to have as there is still an imminent danger from shifting winds and fast-moving fires, you can only do your best and whether the treatment of any citizen or non-citizen was optimal or not, you have everybody trying to do their best under really tough conditions,” he said.

He said that disparities in helping citizens and non-citizens could be eliminated if the federal government adopts immigration reform sooner rather than later.

“The governor has said over and over we need immigration reform,” he said.

Kawamura said the immediate need is to assure that growers have access to the various assistance programs. He said there are plans for a Nov. 16 town hall meeting to bring together growers, federal, state and non-profit organizations.

“We need to communicate those programs that are already in place, whether it’s small business loans or to pursue options from the federal government, such as FEMA or Farm Service Agency,” he said.

He said it will continue to be difficult to determine the long-range losses.

“Some of these guys were still finding out if they even had a crop or not from the January freeze,” he said. “It’s easy to make an inventory count of non-perishable goods, but it’s a lot more difficult to come up with an accurate number (for agriculture).”

California growers, relief groups to meet Nov. 16
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks with avocado grower Robert Schaar Oct. 30 near Fallbrook during a tour of the areas burned by late October wildfires. Schaar lost his home and there was extensive damage to his grove.