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Farmers who grow San Diego County’s most valuable crops may miss out on federal cash for coronavirus-related losses because some of their agriculture products — primarily flowers, nursery plants and exotic fruits — are not included in the relief program.

Why this matters

San Diego County has the most small farmers of any county in the U.S., and an agriculture industry worth more than a billion dollars. Among the most valuable crops are flowers, nursery plants and fruits.

The growers are pushing to get their specialty crops added to the government’s eligible list, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture appears willing to hear them out. It has asked for more information on nursery plants and cut flowers, and given the farmers a deadline of today to provide more data on their losses.

In San Diego County, some of the small farmers who make up the nearly $1.8 billion agricultural economy say they are slowly starting to recover from COVID-19 shutdowns. They are establishing new business models and selling again at reopened farmers markets, restaurants and wholesalers. But many still have gaping financial holes from the spring.

Cindy Luster smells a flower from a cherimoya tree on her specialty fruit farm in Fallbrook, June 17, 2020. She and farm manager Alfredo Gomez pollinate the cherimoya trees by hand.(Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“I don’t know if I can stay in business,” said Cindy Luster, owner of California Exotic Specialty Fruits, a 10-acre Fallbrook farm that grows avocados, cherimoyas, green mangoes and guava. “The fruit’s gone.”

When the shutdown hit, Luster said she donated what fruit she could. But thousands of pounds of her cherimoyas, which are popular with the region’s Asian and South American communities, rotted in the orchard as her buyers scrambled to sell the fruit already on shelves. She had counted on making money from selling that fruit.

“That’s money that would have held us over and that’ll pay the water bill and the fertilizer,” Luster said.

As shops reopened, she said her cherimoyas fetched less than half the price they did before the shutdown. The rates were lower than when she started in the business in the 1980s. Federal data is incomplete but shows a nearly 20% decline in the price of the fruit between January and April.

Cherimoyas are not on the USDA’s list for COVID-19 relief payments. Luster is preparing documentation to prove her case but is already cutting expenses and expecting a smaller crop in the fall.

Farm manager Alfredo Gomez hand pollinates a cherimoya tree at California Exotic Specialty Fruits in Fallbrook, June 17, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Payments from the $16 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program are meant to partially assist those whose crops had a 5% or greater price decline because of the pandemic or who had other losses due to market disruptions.

As of June 15, $2.9 billion had been disbursed, with most of it going to livestock, grain and dairy producers. California’s farmers and ranchers have received $129 million. The USDA could not immediately tell inewsource how much aid has gone to San Diego County, where some of the most valuable crops have been left off the government’s eligible list.

Hannah Gbeh, the San Diego County Farm Bureau’s executive director, described the region’s agriculture as unique.

“We are known for producing very high value crops, because we deal with the expensive cost of land and expensive costs of water,” Gbeh said.

Some of the county’s common crops are eligible for relief funding under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, including avocados, worth $121 million in 2018; lemons, worth $75 million; tomatoes, worth $61 million; and oranges, worth $43 million.

From left, Cindy Luster, Alfredo Gomez and Charlotte Acevedo walk through the California Exotic Specialty Fruits farm in Fallbrook, June 17, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

But four of the county’s top five most valuable crops based on 2018 figures are ineligible: ornamental trees and shrubs, worth $443 million; indoor flowering and foliage plants, worth $330 million; bedding and herbaceous plants, worth $260 million; and cactuses and succulents, worth $104 million. Also excluded are less common fruits, including wine grapes and kumquats.

Some small farmers who want more of the region’s crops to be allowed under the relief program have made their case to the USDA, according to their public comments. One said the pandemic-related economic losses were the worst in 28 years of being in the flower business.

Even as agriculture was deemed essential, canceled events and closed retail shops dried up sales.

Dave Pruitt, who used to own an Encinitas flower business, is the interim CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission, a state agency that represents cut flower and greens farmers. The agency did a survey of the state’s growers to send data to the USDA on the pandemic’s impact. The growers said that from mid-January through mid-April, they dumped nearly 24 times more of their products than for the same period in 2019. Flower orders were at less than half, a trend the growers expect to continue with weddings and other events being canceled.

Pruitt said he’s heard from some growers who have decided to close. For those whose families have been in the flower business for generations, “It’s in their blood,” he said, and that makes these financial decisions even harder.

“One of the most difficult things has been having to fight for the representation and the fair treatment from our own government,” Pruitt added.

Owner Mel Resendiz puts together a bouquet of flowers at the Resendiz Brothers Protea Growers nursery in Fallbrook, June 17, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Diana Roy, the office manager at Fallbrook-based Resendiz Brothers Protea Growers LLC, which grows flowers and other plants, said the economic shock from the pandemic had been “disastrous” for the business. But sales have started to pick up, and she’s feeling more optimistic.

Even so, federal relief payments could still be of help to the county’s farmers and growers who produce specialty crops.

“We’re hoping the USDA comes through,” Roy said.

Camille von Kaenel is an investigative reporter at inewsource focused on growth and development in San Diego County’s backcountry. Her position is partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists, and she's passionate about community service. Born in...