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Bill would provide insurance coverage for smoke taint

Bipartisan legislation highlighted at annual research summit.

Lee Allen, Contributing Writer

June 24, 2024

3 Min Read
Smoke taint experiment
Elizabeth Tomasino, an associate professor of enology, and Cole Cerrato study the impact of smoke exposure on grapes at Oregon State University's Woodhall VineyardSean Nealon/Oregon State University

This year’s West Coast Smoke Exposure Task Force in Sacramento held its annual Smoke Summit recently with some surprise announcements.

With participants from 17 states and four countries signed up for the virtual gathering, Task Force Co-chair Natalie Collins, President of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, told attendees: “As wildfires continue to pose a significant threat to our industry and communities, the Annual Smoke Summit serves as an avenue for sharing knowledge and progress, a testament to the unity of the entire West Coast wine and grape industry, collectively committed to ensuring our industry has access to the latest research and resources.”

Updated status sessions came from USDA Agricultural Research Service Specialty Crops Program Leader Tim Rinehart; USDA-ARS Crop Pathology Chemist Arran Rumbaugh, and Washington State Wine Commission Research Director Melissa Hansen.

“The Agricultural Research Service has been very productive so far with increasing numbers of research scientists representing a collaborative effort and one of our most important collaborations is the technical transfer sector,” said Rinehart. “We’re grateful for on-going support in the vicinity of $5 million plus, specifically dedicated to smoke research.”

While well-known industry stars Tom Collins (Washington State University); Anita Oberholster (UC Davis), and Cole Cerrato (Oregon State University) updated their phenol numbers and presented new charts and graphs showing 2023-2024 research progress, two major announcements came as surprises.

Insurance coverage

In introducing Surprise Element #1, Hansen said: “Excitement on this has been building since the devastating wildfires of 2020 as we worked diligently to find a solution to better ensure winegrapes against smoke impact. Now legislation has been introduced that would direct the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation and RMA (Risk Management Agency) to carry out research to implement a crop insurance product that would cover losses due to smoke exposure.”

With a tip of the hat for help from U.S. sens. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., along with California Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson and Washington GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse, the FCIC and RMA were directed to carry out research and implement a crop insurance product that would cover smoke loss.

As that bill was introduced, the risk management agency development team was at work researching potential solutions to aid in supplying additional coverage options for growers. Federal officials have now given approval for a smoke endorsement known as The Fire Insurance Protection Smoke Index or FIP-SI, a groundbreaking development which will launch as a pilot program in California before extending to other states.

USDA Regional Risk Management Director Jeff Psoi shared preliminary policy details about the group collaborative effort he termed, “a big success.”  Hoping for a program that achieves user-popularity and quickly resolves issues, he noted growers could attach it to an existing policy. “We wanted something simple, that can quickly respond to smoke damage issues at the end of an insurance period, quickly providing indemnities,” he said.

“We’re starting in California because of all the historical data we have,” he said. “Later this year we’ll head north to take a look at conditions in Washington and Oregon.”

One of the nicest aspects of this change is that “the premium is subsidized with most of it paid by the government,” he said. “This endorsement is designed to be an area plan that provides additional area-wide smoke coverage without growers having to do lab tests in 32 insurable counties.”

Vine losses

Psoi also reported approval of a grapevine policy that paid for vine losses destroyed by fire, freezes, flooding, and other insurable causes. It does not cover loss due to disease or pests.

Final wording and legal language is still being formatted with policy language expected sometime in August.

Also coming soon is a West Coast Smoke Exposure Task Force website to show industry research for California, Oregon, Washington, and the West Coast. The site will display research projects on related topics of wildfire smoke exposure as well as conference proceedings and a news section on subjects of interest.

“It’s just about ready to launch,” said Collins, before speeding off to share the sneak peek news items at the Allied Grape Growers annual gatherings in Fresno and Sonoma.

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