More Victims of the California Wildfires: Avocados and Lemons
The fire that rampaged through the Brokaw Ranch in Ventura County last week was fast, furious and unstoppable, driven by winds gusting at 70 miles an hour.
Flames raced through the chaparral, setting ablaze 60-foot-tall trees whose burning embers flew into the heart of the avocado orchard.
“We lost about 80 percent of our avocado crop,” said Ellen Brokaw, whose family farms 200 acres in Santa Paula and supplies restaurants and national supermarket chains.
It is too early to know the full extent of the damage because much of the wildfire zone is still closed off or enveloped in haze. The fire is capricious and, as with the structures that it damaged, its flames often hurtle through one stretch of land while jumping over an adjacent plot.
Avocado orchards are particularly vulnerable: They line hillsides, which were in the path of the fire, and their dropped leaves collect on the ground, providing perfect tinder.
Lemon groves tend to be located on flatter ground, and the trees do not shed their leaves. But they were battered by the same winds that spread the fires, blowing loose or badly scarring the fruit. Lemons cannot be sold once they have hit the ground, and damaged lemons suffer in quality and value.
“It will take days, weeks or longer to assess the loss,” said John Krist, chief executive of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. “What we know is, there’s a lot of fruit on the ground.”
Consumers are unlikely to see a surge in the price of avocados from the fire because most avocados bought in the United States are grown in Mexico. A spike in lemon prices is unlikely to occur even though Ventura County produces more than 40 percent of the national output, Mr. Krist said, because any lost crop can be made up by increasing imports.
Still, the wildfires happened just before some growers planned to start harvesting their avocados and lemons. And farmers who are relieved their entire crop was not wiped out are still worried about having enough workers when they will need them later in the season, because it is still unclear how many people lost their homes.
“Everything has been thrown up in the air,” said Lisa Churchill, who grows avocados and specialty tangerines, like the pixie variety, in the Ojai Valley. Ms. Churchill said she believes she lost about half of her avocado crop and about 20 percent of her mandarins. “We don’t know what impact this will have on our ability to put together a crew,” she said.
Many farmers said the devastation would have been considerably worse were it not for the workers on the front lines, frenetically spraying water from hoses and small water tanks mounted on their backs. Sometimes workers resorted to shoveling sand onto smoldering vegetation.