By Kate Campbell
California Farm Bureau Federation
Authorities continue to calculate damage caused by a pair of fierce storms that churned through Imperial County, bursting irrigation canals, washing out roads and inundating communities, homes and farm fields. Farmers say the agricultural damage alone will be in the millions of dollars.
The worst of the two storms hit July 30, dumping as much as 4 inches of rain in a few hours on the Imperial Valley’s west side. Historically, Imperial County sees average annual rainfall of about 3 inches.
Hardest hit were west-side growers preparing to harvest forage and seed crops, which in 2011 had a value of about $70 million.
On July 30, the rain came down so intensely from about 4 p.m. until 5 p.m. that water washed from the western hills and formed rivers that swept across the desert and breached the Imperial Irrigation District West Side Canal, creating a 250-foot gash.
Freddie Abatti, who grows alfalfa, Sudan grass and seed for forage crops, estimated he faces a crop loss of about $7 million. He said he was harvesting when the storm hit and had about 1,000 acres of Sudan grass cut and down in the fields. His alfalfa seed crop was unharvested and completely underwater. He said it appears to be a 100 percent loss.
Forage and seed crops on the county’s west side account for about 22,000 acres. Overall, Imperial County reports about 50,000 acres of seed crops, including alfalfa, kleingrass, Sudan grass and Bermuda grass.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Abatti said. “It will be up to six months before the flooded fields are ready for replanting. And there are ditches to repair, laser-leveling to be redone, silt and debris removal.
“This is going to take a real toll on our cash flow,” he said. “It’s going to hurt.”
Imperial County leads the nation in seed production for forage crops. Abatti said the impact of the floods could have a hidden impact on food prices, which already are predicted to increase because of this year’s Midwest drought. More expensive seed for forage could translate into higher-priced hay, which drives up the costs of livestock production and increases prices at the supermarket.
Imperial County farmers also are major suppliers of seed to international markets, including Australia and Saudi Arabia.
Abatti said he didn’t think the summer floods would disrupt the nation’s winter vegetable supply, because those Imperial Valley fields are farther east from the mountains and didn’t experience the same dangerous flash flooding as those on the west.
Imperial County Agricultural Commissioner Connie Valenzuela said her office continues to assess damage from the July 30 storm and an earlier storm that hit on July 13.
“In the case of both storms, we had alfalfa, Bermuda grass and seed crops in the ground, as well as kleingrass, Sudan grass and sugar beets,” she said.
There are many variables in figuring crop losses in flood events, she said, “but we suspect we will meet the 30 percent crop-loss threshold for alfalfa seed, which is required for a disaster designation.”
Linsey Dale, Imperial County Farm Bureau executive director, said Farm Bureau is closely monitoring the situation, noting that only about 15 percent of alfalfa for seed had been harvested when the storms hit.