Farmers, ranchers seek better wildfire policies

Hemp farms in San Diego’s back country, like Eddie and Brooke Campos' No Boundaries at Jamul, are particularly susceptible to fires./No Boundaries

“Hours had passed and the fire’s coming down the hill; it had just taken us over, so we start packing what we could as we watched my son’s house burn and our whole hemp farm burn right in front of our own eyes. It was a devastating experience,” 

— Jamul hemp farmer Eddie Campos described watching his crop and homes burn, saying his initial 911 call to report the fire brought no response. His No Boundaries farm is out of business and seeking the funds to resumer operations.

Calling for structural, regulatory changes, farmers and ranchers testified at a state legislative hearing about the impact of wildfires that have become hotter, faster and more destructive.

The sometimes-emotional testimony came during a hearing last week called by Assembly Member Robert Rivas, D-Salinas, who chairs the Assembly Agriculture Committee. At the hearing, farmers and ranchers provided first-person accounts of burned or damaged crops and livestock, lost homes and harrowing details about taking quick action to try to prevent destruction of property.

California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson, a farmer in Butte County who has been ordered to evacuate his home in three of the last four years, discussed the economic toll the fires have taken on many Farm Bureau members.

“California’s farms, ranches, employee housing, equipment and our raw commodities have been damaged or completely destroyed,” Johansson said. “These wildfires don’t discriminate and are ignorant to jurisdictional boundaries. It doesn’t matter if it’s federal, state or local responsibility areas.”

Butte County rancher Dave Daley, past president of the California Cattlemen’s Association, discussed impacts from the North Complex fire, which he said “came so quickly through our mountain range that within about 12 hours, it burned over 75,000 acres—and that included the majority of my cow herd. Roughly 400 cows and their calves were killed in the fire.”

Daley and other panelists encouraged increased vegetation management, such as prescribed, controlled burns and targeted grazing to reduce the fuel load.

“California has a goal to increase the pace and scale of vegetation treatments to at least 500,000 acres per year on non-federal lands,” Johansson said. “To fully treat 21 million acres of land at a goal of 500,000 acres per year, it will take 42 years.

“California must do better and must be more efficient,” he said. “California is playing catch-up to a situation that has been worsening for decades and has been exacerbated by drought, disease and even climate change.”

Dan Macon, University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Placer and Nevada counties, said research has shown targeted grazing and prescribed fires can be very effective in removing wildfire fuel. He said 38 counties are using grazing as a fuel-reduction technique.

“Targeted grazing can be very cost-effective where other options are ineffective or too costly due to terrain or topography that’s too steep or remote or rocky to treat with other techniques,” Macon said. “It’s really important to acknowledge that agriculture is a part of the solution to this issue.”

The California regional director for American Farmland Trust, Kara Heckert, said not only does agricultural land have less greenhouse gas emissions than urban land, but it is less flammable and often serves as fire breaks.

For the winegrape sector, Johansson noted the LNU Lighting Complex fire covered much of Northern California’s wine region and left a weeklong blanket of smoke and ash, which was followed by the Glass Fire that burned in Napa and Sonoma counties. The Glass Fire, he said, could result in $1 billion in losses, and crop damage from smoke and ash related to the LNU Complex could be in the hundreds of millions.

Sonoma County Winegrape Growers President Karissa Kruse said areas of need include additional, faster testing to detect smoke impact on grapes.

“We had so much unpredictability in what was harvested and whether those grapes would actually be made into wine, just because we couldn’t get good test results back in time,” Kruse said. “Crops got left on the vine because wineries didn’t want to take that risk, so that’s a financial impact to farmers and farmworkers.”

Panelists discussed farmers and ranchers

Panelists discussed allowing farmers and ranchers to be able to cross into evacuation zones, either to relocate imperiled animals or help with the firefighting effort by creating fire breaks or providing water for use by firefighters.

“We ended up having to deal with a lot of the issues ourselves” during the CZU Lightning Complex fire, said Cole Mazariegos-Anastassiou, who operates a small, organic farm in Pescadero.

Working nonstop for three days, Mazariegos-Anastassiou said he and neighbors cut firebreaks and wet the perimeter to keep fire out.

“We need to have a system that includes farmers and ranchers in the fire preparation, active response and restoration process,” he said. “In rural communities like ours, it’s essential because, as we saw on this particular fire, there just wasn’t enough resources. We need to think about how to include other members of our community, to be able to protect our own communities in the face of these fires.”

Johansson suggested offering a certification course in wildland fire safety to farmers, “so we can be certified to work within an evacuation zone to safely relocate or tend to our livestock.”

Several panelists talked about challenges with getting farms insured to cover fire losses.

Campos said he was denied coverage from the California FAIR Plan, which includes all insurers authorized to transact basic property insurance in California.

Johansson said insurance premiums have jumped from $8,000 to $36,000 for some policyholders, and others lost coverage completely. The California FAIR plan, he said, should cover farming and ranching infrastructure just like any other commercial business in the state. He described resolving the issue as a Farm Bureau priority.

Rivas said California must be better prepared for wildfires.

“It’s also clear that agriculture must be a leader in this discussion and be a part of the solution in mitigating the impacts of wildfires,” Rivas said.

Wildfires ravage East County hemp farm

“Fires occur annually throughout California but for San Diego’s legal hemp industry, which is really still in its infancy, the location and span of this year’s fires could greatly impact our current outdoor cultivation, which is often harvested in October,” says Stuart Titus, CEO of Medical Marijuana, Inc.

Those risks came to a devastating head during the Valley Fire, which Campos said destroyed their business.

The family-run farm, which was founded in October 2019, lost three structures, including her brother’s home and a barn where their hemp clones were housed. Clones, which are plants that are cut from an original “mother” plant, are used to start new crops each growing season while maintaining the same genetic line. Losing a stable of clones means that cultivators lose unique genetics that may separate their particular product from other growers.

Campos says six of the property’s 40 acres were licensed with the county and subsequently planted. She estimates they had 15,000 hemp plants in the ground and upwards of 25,000 plants on the property in total.

Now most of those are gone. Campos estimates the monetary value of the loss to be around $500,000 though she said it is still too early to tell for sure. The loss includes more than plants — Campos says their offices, which contained all of No Boundaries’ finished products, samples, packaging, trade show, and point-of-sale materials, were also destroyed.

Some of their outdoor plants were not incinerated, Campos says, but she is nervous they could be ruined anyway. In addition to being a young industry, there are other hemp-specific challenges when considering wildfires. Hemp plants, like all varieties of cannabis plants, are particularly susceptible to smoke taint.

The Campos family starts picking up the pieces after the September 2020 Valley Fire at Jamul/No Boundaries

“Specific threats wildfires pose to hemp cultivation are not always obvious,” says Joshua Swider, Co-founder & CEO of Infinite Chemical Analysis Labs. He says that though fires can destroy an entire crop, smoke damage is another serious concern for growers.

“Smoke alters the quality and taste of hemp, and ash particles from buildings could contaminate a grow with toxic chemicals. Arsenic, heavy metals, copper, lead, transformer fluid, brake fluid, fire suppressant or retardant — you don’t want to be breathing that stuff in and you definitely can’t have it in your medicine,” Swider says.

Unfortunately, for cultivators like Campos and family, rebuilding will be an uphill battle.

“We don’t have insurance on our property because of our location in rural Jamul,” Campos says of the farm, located on West Boundary Truck Trail, the same road as Inya Hemp’s farm. “My dad has had four different insurance companies come out to our property in the past couple of months just to be able to get some kind of policy going. We were denied insurance by all four of them,” she says, declining to name specific companies.

Campos also says they had “zero” ground or air support while fighting the blaze themselves, noting that just a handful of their own team members were onsite.

“They were fighting the fire and trying to save our farm. Our understanding is that all fire support was deployed on the Alpine side of the fire, not the Lawson Valley/Jamul side,” she says. She adds that though she assumes the reason is that the fire started on the other side of the valley, both she and her family “personally feel that land in Jamul may not be as valuable as Alpine to the county.”

Campos and family have since started two GoFundMe campaigns — one for the farm and another geared towards rebuilding her brother’s house.

Durckel says that hemp farmers can find assistance through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and, in some cases, the Small Business Administration (SBA). She also refers growers to The Farm Bureau. Durckel adds that the AWM will participate at the Valley Fire Local Assistance Center, located at the Rancho San Diego Library and suggest those who have lost property file a formwith the AWM so San Diego can qualify for further emergency assistance.

Titus offers further suggestions. “The local government may be able to help provide growers with additional insurance as a part of the licensing program in addition to the national hemp insurance providers such as CannGen,” he says.

His own company grows outdoors, but Titus also suggests moving growing operations indoors. That, however, requires a lot of electricity and other resources, like ventilation and temperature control, making growing indoors expensive and less environmentally sustainable. Titus suggests local governments could subsidize transition costs for farmers who have suffered fires and want to move their crops indoors.

Though recovery solutions exist, they are not guaranteed, and farms like No Boundaries and Inya Hemp’s will unfortunately serve as test cases for San Diego County’s fledgling industrial hemp industry.

Campos says the GoFundMes are intended to get the family and their farm “back to a starting point.”

Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.

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