Prices May Rise From the Rain That Grayed Golden State

AS unrelenting rain pummeled Northern California last weekend, Sig Christierson tried frantically to reach the 3,000 choice acres his family has farmed since 1934 in the heart of Salinas Valley.

Cut off by rising floodwaters and closed roads for more than 24 hours, he finally made it to his land, only to find a 400-acre lake where his fields used to be. Thirty percent of his crops -- lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower -- were lost to the water.

With broken machinery and layers of silt in the fields, ''It will probably take years to get the ground back into production,'' says Mr. Christierson, president of Major Farms Inc. ''We will definitely take a loss.''

Christierson is one of the many growers in California's $20-billion farming industry whose livelihoods have been jeopardized by the historic rainstorms and flooding of the past week.

Although much of the water that submerged 50,000 acres of farmland has receded, the toil to this state's agricultural economy is enormous. The state Department of Food and Agriculture estimates losses of $363 million, in addition to the $97 million of storm damage suffered this January.

''The degree of damage is unprecedented,'' says Dave Krantz of the California Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 75,000 growers statewide.

Crops suffering the most severe losses include lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and strawberries grown primarily in Monterey County and Salinas. Although agriculture officials are reluctant to talk about specific price increases, consumers will likely feel the crunch at the supermarket into the summer.

The rest of the country depends heavily on California's booming agricultural industry. The state makes up only 3 percent of the country's farmland, but produces 55 percent of the country's fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

''We have the full range of geology and climate and crop patterns in this state,'' says Mr. Krantz. ''Usually that variety can provide a buffer for weather of this sort. What is incredible is that this storm affected almost all areas of the state to some degree.''

Lettuce has suffered a $70 million crop loss, strawberries a $30 million loss. The cost for consumers for these items could easily triple. Wine grapes have also been hard hit.

''Our greatest concern is for the next one to three months,'' says Deborah Lamber, spokeswoman for Safeway, a national supermarket chain. Although she believes some produce prices will increase, the big picture is still unclear. ''Our buyers are right now out inspecting the fields. We're searching for other suppliers. And we plan to watch the competition carefully,'' she says.

Prices will also rise for two crops grown exclusively in California. Although artichokes suffered large losses, almonds took a devastating hit. Due to their shallow roots, 75,000 almond trees covering 10,000 acres were blown down by the fierce winds. Damage estimates range from $20 million to $100 million, as growers predict it will take five years before the trees can produce another crop.

Fruit trees were especially vulnerable to the bad weather. Cherries, nectarines, apricots, peaches, and plums ''popped'' early this year and were expected to reach peak bloom this week, says Michael Marks of Sacramento Pre-Pak, a produce wholesale distributor. Unable to navigate the rain, bees could not pollinate the trees. The full impact of the reduced fruit crop will not be felt by consumers until summer.

MOST of the 76,000 growers in California do not carry insurance for crop losses, says Krantz, and can only receive federal subsidies if crop losses exceed 50 percent. Some farmers, including Christierson, are hoping to receive assistance for reconstruction from the US Department of Agriculture.

Farmworkers, however, have no such back-up, and are dependent on working the fields to stay alive. The estimated 26,000 farmworkers employed by California growers in Santa Cruz and Monterey County have worked only two to three days out of the last three months, says Albert Gonzalez, a United Farmworkers of America organizer.

''Gov. Pete Wilson's main worry is the growers and crop restoration,'' he says. ''But what about the people? There is nothing to do for farmworkers other than work. I feel for everybody, and everyone has taken losses. But with the losses farmworkers have taken, they cannot cope.''

The rains have come at an inopportune time for California farmers. The state's growers, explains Marks of Sacramento Pre-Pak, have had lean years in the 1990s due to oversupply of produce as well as ''retail chains dictating produce prices by computer rather than by actual market supply.''

''People need to understand that this industry is unique and different than any other in the world,'' says Marks. ''Most items, if you pay more you get higher quality. In agriculture, if you pay more, it means less supply, which means worse quality.''

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