Burn scars from the Valley Fire are seen from Hidden Glen Road in Alpine on Jan. 29, 2021. The 16,390-acre fire started on Sept. 5, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

California farmers in high fire risk areas like San Diego County’s backcountry will now have access to a last-resort, bare-bones insurance policy if they get turned down by other insurers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law on Friday Senate Bill 11, which makes farmers eligible to insure their buildings through the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements Plan, or FAIR Plan. Previously, state law excluded the FAIR Plan from covering farm risks, leaving farmers with no place to turn for insurance coverage as wildfires in California get more severe and frequent.

The California Farm Bureau Federation sponsored the legislation, which was introduced in March by state Sen. Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park.

Why this matters

San Diego County’s nearly $1.8 billion agriculture industry is facing significant risks as fire insurance becomes harder for farmers to get. Insurers are reluctant to offer policies in areas where climate change has increased the risk of destructive brush fires.

inewsource reported in February that an Alpine chicken rancher spurred the statewide campaign when he tried to insure a new tractor last year but got a letter from the FAIR Plan saying it could not provide coverage because he was a farmer. Three brush fires have burned near his property since 2006.

The FAIR Plan is an insurance pool required by the state to provide basic coverage to home and business owners who have run out of other options. More California homeowners are turning to it as other insurers refuse to take on high fire risk, but it can cost more and cover less.

Hannah Gbeh, the executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said the new law was excellent news for farmers because it provided a fail-safe, last-resort plan for insurance needs, but that farmers are still having problems getting affordable insurance in fire-prone areas.

“It’s an enormous issue,” she said. “Every week, I probably receive a call from a farmer saying that they have their insurance canceled and they’re struggling trying to get coverage.”

The state Farm Bureau estimated in February that about 500 farmers in the state have been unable to renew their insurance policies since 2019. It was only able to collect information about how many farmers were also rejected for the last-resort coverage in Sonoma and Monterey counties, where about two dozen were turned down by the FAIR Plan.

Burn scars from the Valley Fire are seen along Lyons Valley Road in Alpine on Jan. 29, 2021. The 16,390-acre fire started on Sept. 5, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Under the new law, the FAIR Plan now no longer excludes farm risks in general and only excludes crops and livestock or equipment used to cultivate or transport crops and livestock. That means farmers will be able to insure the family home, barns and other storage buildings.

San Diego County’s largest wildfire of 2020 destroyed $1.58 million in agricultural infrastructure and crops. In wine-making Napa County, the loss of agricultural infrastructure due to wildfires exceeded $35 million in the same year.

Rubio said in a statement the bill’s signing will help thousands of farmers obtain coverage through the FAIR Plan. 

“Without insurance, farmers cannot access loans to update equipment, plant their crop or pay workers, putting their farm at risk of closing,” she said. “Ensuring farmers can access the FAIR Plan for coverage is a critical step in making sure that doesn’t happen.”

The bill includes an urgency clause requiring the FAIR plan to submit its rate filing to offer the coverage to the Department of Insurance for regulatory approval within 90 days. 

It passed both chambers of the legislature unopposed and had the support of the insurance industry.

S.B. 11 is the first of 11 bills state lawmakers are pushing forward as a fire safety package this year to become law. Two of the bills 一 one that would have placed a $5.6 billion bond before voters in 2022 and one that would have required Cal Fire to prioritize clearing brush where residents are having problems finding insurance 一 have stalled.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Camille von Kaenel is a former investigative reporter for inewsource focused on environment and energy in San Diego and Imperial counties. Her position was partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists. Previously, she covered growth and development in San...