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Aid Is a Bumper Crop for Farmers

It wasn't the easiest task for Fisher, who chaired the local farmers' committee that approves disaster payments on behalf of the Tulare County branch of the federal Farm Service Agency. In one case, a nectarine grower sought help for weather damage after he had pulled down his own trees. Other farmers claimed to have suffered disasters when the weather was normal.

Fisher said he doesn't begrudge growers who have collected disaster aid, despite the cost to taxpayers. His own farm has gotten some. "Whether it's right or wrong, if they are offering it, you're foolish to turn it down," he said.

Tulare farmers have received a total of nearly $77 million in disaster payments since 1998. They have also netted $51.1 million in crop insurance. Yet the county harvest has been bountiful in most years, with agricultural sales reaching an all-time high of $4 billion in 2005.

The county hasn't suffered a true weather disaster since Christmas 1998, when it was hit with a freeze and torrential rains, according to local weather consultants and some farmers.

"Katrina is a disaster," said Tom Gruber, a local orange grower. "A hurricane in Florida is a disaster."

But very few Tulare farmers are rejected when they apply for disaster aid, records show. Of the 732 applications by orange growers for assistance in the past two disaster bills, only 33 were ruled ineligible -- less than 5 percent.

Don Laux, 78, of Porterville, is one of dozens of citrus growers who have gotten help.

Some of the orange trees on his 500-plus acres were planted in 1911 and have survived Tulare County weather for nearly a century. As do most citrus growers, Laux and his son Gary use wind machines, automatic irrigation systems, computerized weather stations and a private weather consultant to minimize their risks. They also take out crop insurance, which has paid them for losses. Still, Laux Land Co. has received $215,000 in disaster payments since 1998, according to USDA records.

"I think anyone could get along without it, but it would be a lot harder," Don Laux said. "Any little bit helps."

Last year, the Lauxes received $73,000 in disaster payments for losses on a portion of their 2004 crop of navels and Valencias. They based their claim on a warm spell that "hit the blooms" and caused some oranges to fall prematurely.

Most of their orchards came through okay, but when Don Laux checked with the packaging house that handled their oranges, he learned that yields per acre had fallen by up to 40 percent in some of their orchards. Armed with the records, the Lauxes filed for aid.

"We're not farming for the government, we're farming for ourselves," Gary Laux said. "We truly would like to make money growing crops. But there are a lot of influences out there we have no control over. It's nice to have a safety net."

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