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California wine grape growers eye millions in federal aid for 2020 wildfire losses

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said about $6 billion will be made available for crop disasters in the past two years, including severe drought and the devastating 2020 North Bay wildfires that led to significant reductions in the California North Coast wine grape harvests.

California viticulture advocates said the new money through the USDA’s Emergency Relief Program is poised to do more than previous help to cover a roughly $400 million shortfall between crop insurance payments and the value of fruit that couldn’t be picked amid the Glass and LNU Lightning Complex fires in Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Solano counties.

“USDA’s announcement of the Emergency Relief Program will provide much needed help for winegrape growers who experienced unprecedented losses due to devastating wildfires in 2020,” said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, in a statement. “There is a substantial difference between the estimated value of crop losses, due to smoke damage, and the crop insurance indemnities paid to growers.”

Wine grape growers statewide lost an estimated $601 million in crop value in 2020 from fire and smoke damage, but crop insurance payments for those losses were over $200 million, according to the trade group.

The 2020 North Coast wine grape harvest value dropped by 46% from the previous year to $824.5 million, and the volume fell by 29% to 340,000 tons, according to the state crush report.

The USDA on Monday said it would be paying the disaster assistance through its Farm Service Agency for commodity and specialty crop growers on yield and value loses. Payments are calculated based on loss data filed via the Federal Crop Insurance and Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance programs.

The new funding would pay in disaster help to eligible farmers up to $900,000 (or up to $125,000 for those whose adjusted gross income from agriculture is less than 75% of their total). (See the Emergency Relief Program fact sheet for details.)

The grape trade group notes that it’s a “substantial increase” from the limit of $250,000 under the USDA’s previous disaster program, Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus (WHIP+).

The Emergency Relief Program is part of $10 billion in agricultural disaster help included in an economic aid package that President Biden signed Sept. 30, 2021.

Aguirre said the aid is “much-needed bit of good news“ but a long time in coming.

“California’s winegrape growers have weathered enormous disruptions in the past three years — low grape prices, COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, water curtailments, labor shortages, and rapidly escalating production costs,” he said in the group’s news release.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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