Though David Cooper is an experienced Farm Manager, nothing prepared him what he had to face. At two in the morning on October 8th, 2017, the Nun’s Fire crested the hills five miles outside Glen Ellen, CA. The wildfire burned for 22 days, and was so destructive it resulted in three deaths and 56,500 acres burned and 1,355 structures destroyed. In its path was Oak Hill Farm, where Cooper was managing 20 acres of mixed vegetables, flowers and fruit on a larger 700 acre property.
“I’m sharing my experience today in the hopes that, should you be faced with a similar situation, you’ll have learned some lessons that we would have certainly benefited from knowing ahead of time,” reflects Cooper. He joined Farmer Campus to share his experience, recount the real losses that farmers can face from wildfire (which you can see in Part 1: Counting The Losses: Tallying The True Costs Of Wildfire For Farmers), and share tips and resources for financial preparation and recovery when a disaster strikes.
Part II: Financial Recovery and Support After a Wildfire with David Cooper
Once the fire was more or less contained and we were able to get back into the property, we had to start thinking about the recovery side of things. What do we even do? While we had private insurance, we didn’t really fully understand proper insurance nor all of the resources that were out there besides insurance. As it turns out, there are actually a lot of resources available for farms post-fire, even though there never had been a fire this large with this much destruction. Trying to understand what was out there was kind of step one – so below is a round-up of what we accessed after the fire and our experience and takeaways.
Insurance and Gaps in Insurance
For us, we started with private insurance. We had a lot of buildings and houses on the property, but the farm was set up separately from those houses, so the owner actually had a fair amount of insurance for buildings and the contents of the buildings. Fortunately, we had tractors and equipment parked in the equipment shed, so everything inside of the shed was covered, but those that were parked outside and burned were not.
The farm itself didn’t have very much insurance, and we had no coverage for all the different losses of revenue. We had nothing to cover the lost wages; we weren’t able to pay employees for two weeks. None of our products were insured, and we didn’t have any crop insurance for the acre and a half or so of perennials that we lost. Also, no insurance for our fencing or our field irrigation. And so that’s where some of the other sources we were able to tap into came in, [which I’ll get into below]. But once we figured out what was insured, it became a process of actually dealing with the insurance claim.
How do you account for your losses? How do you get reimbursed? How do you replace what you’ve lost?
In order to file any claim to get any reimbursement, we had to go back through and come up with a list of what was in buildings that we lost. That requires coming up with the brand name and the model number, roughly the year that it was purchased, and a rough purchase price. The insurance company allows you to go through and conduct an internet search – so we had to try to remember what might have been in there! While we might not have known the brand name on it, we’d know for example that it maybe was a five horsepower compressor, and then try to find an online equivalent to figure out where to get one and what it might have cost. Basically, we had to go through an extensive list of every item that I could come up with that was in there!
Tip: Using your smartphone’s video, go through your workshop/barn and video what’s in the drawers, on the walls, on the shelves etc., to document what you might have in there to cue your memory in case of loss. You can do this for your home and barn as well. If you’re up for a step beyond that, start a spreadsheet and list each item, cost and brand name now and enter new ones as you purchase them.
As far as the structures, they were insured, but some of the issues we faced were around the farm buildings because some of them were really old; the farmhouse was from the late 1800s. Because of that, it was built with material that you can’t get anymore because it was entirely redwood. Also, it certainly wasn’t built to current building codes, and it wasn’t insured to what current rebuilding costs are in Sonoma County, especially since the cost of construction is extremely high now and we weren’t insuring the buildings for replacement cost.
So in rebuilding, you can’t go back to the building codes from 1880 and rebuild. You have to meet the current codes, which are more expensive, and there’s going to be upgrades you need to do including electrical and septic. Additionally, where you’re allowed to build may also have changed. For instance, our workshop was too close to a waterway, a creek, which was fine back when they built the property, but now we had to find a new place to put our workshop because we couldn’t get a building permit for the original location.
After I listed all those things that weren’t covered by our insurance, we had to look for ways to get some compensation for loss, so we started with the federal government. For farms, the USDA is the place to start. There are two different parts of the USDA that provide support: the Farm Service Agency (FSA), and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Tip: You can register with the NRCS and FSA before a wildfire comes, making it easier to get aid and support after the fire.
Farm Service Agency (FSA)
Although they both sit under USDA, the FSA is focused on farm-specific losses. So for instance, that could apply to livestock for the forage that was lost in the fire. Or, if you’ve lost trees and vines, which would have brought in income from their products, there’s emergency loan programs to try to get you through those next few months from however long until you can start producing again and start bringing in income. It also covers farmland damage, and then there’s even coverage for uninsured destruction from disasters.
Learn more: USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) offers disaster assistance and low-interest loan programs to assist agricultural producers in their recovery efforts following wildfires or other qualifying natural disasters. California Loan Programs through the FSA include Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP), Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), Tree Assistance Program (TAP), Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP), Emergency Loan Program, Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) and HayNet. See full descriptions here.
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
The NRCS works with FSA, but they’re more focused on the larger property. They don’t focus specifically on the farm and the crops. So for us, we looked at [getting funds for things like] perimeter fencing and debris removal. They can help if you have a bunch of downed trees that are covering the roads or covering irrigation and hindering your ability to farm. NRCS tends to cover those things related to land around the farm. Whereas, FSA is the actual farm fields and irrigation directly related to that. The NRCS also helps with soil erosion protection.
In order to sort of start working with either one of these USDA programs is just to find your local office. Go to their website, find the list of local offices and just call them up and start the process. As I mentioned, the same application covers NRCS and FSA. Even if you start with FSA, they may say, “Oh, well actually, you should be talking to NRCS.” They’re really good about just transferring you over to the other people in the office who can help you and you don’t have to apply for one or the other. Or, you can apply to both programs and then they will tell you what your situation qualifies for.
It’s definitely time consuming, with a pretty detailed application to start the process. Once you get into the system, you have to have a farm plan in place in order to get any money through USDA. But once you have all of that in place, you’re in the system and you can qualify for the money that comes along. And once you’re in it, it’s actually much easier to get the money and they’re very helpful. The first step is someone will come out and they’ll walk the property with you to see what your losses are. Then they’ll tell you what they can do to help and the resources they have available.
We went through the process and we actually received cost-share assistance for fence repair and debris removal, which included all of the oaks that had come down on our fence lines on our roads and then also rebuilding those miles of perimeter fencing that we lost. Then, through FSA, we were able to get some assistance for replacement of trees. So there’s plenty of assistance out there.
Learn more: The NRCS has a California Wildfire program whose primary focus is to reduce the immediate impacts of the fires related to soil erosion; hazard trees, accumulation of fire hazard debris, and invasion by noxious weeds. Description of support here.
Watch: Post-Fire Recovery: NRCS Fire Mitigation & Recovery Aid
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is also a part of post fire recovery [through their Disaster Assistance program], as well as the Army Corps of Engineers. You’ll also hear a lot about the US Small Business Administration which we were told to look into first, but then it turns out that they’re actually prohibited from working with farm businesses. They’re fine for other small businesses, but because farms have the USDA, it has purview over any losses from farms and so you can’t actually get the support from the Small Business Administration. However, I thought I’d mention it if you have some part of your business that’s not directly farming – you can access Small Business Administration if you had a café or something as part of the farm.
The State government also has resources, such as Resource Conservation Districts, agricultural division, which is just what we know as Weights and Measures where we go and get our CPCs and our scales, but they also were able to provide support after the fire through the UC extension offices. Finally, the Employment Development Department, and EDD unemployment, can be useful when you’re out of work.
Nonprofit and Community Support
Nonprofits also can provide a lot of support. For us, there of course was the Community Alliance for Family Farms (CAFF) and the Farmers Guild. Rotary International and some religious organizations came out to support us, as well as just our community of customers did crowdfunding, and then other just community funds popped up as well.
Ready to build Resilience?
The best time to get financially prepared for a disaster was yesterday, the next best time is now! Join our Farmers Build Wildfire Resilience Online Course, and stay tuned! We’ll be releasing new materials from our upcoming Disaster Financial Preparedness and Resilience On Farm workshops, resources and mini online course. Get in touch by emailing email@example.com to get updates.
“This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award Numbers 2018-70027-28587, RMA21CPT0011602, Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program G226-22-W8617 and AFRI EWD Predoctoral Award #2022-67011-36637. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, any reference to specific brands or types of products or services does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for those products or services.”