Agriculture Expert Witness: How Your Food is Affected by Damages During Growing Season


Agriculture Expert WitnessWe all know that food prices can vary from season to season. Tomatoes that are in season during the summer are cheaper than tomatoes during the winter. Many factors go into the price of a tomato and many of these factors are beyond the control of the farmer. This makes a tomato quite different from a pair of sneakers, whose production can be tightly controlled. This is why an agricultural economist is a better fit as an agriculture expert witness when farming practices are at issue.

One of the most important factors in agriculture is the timing of planting, weeding, fertilizing and harvesting. If any of these factors are interrupted, the crop will not perform optimally. These factors can be affected by weather, but also by the state of the farmer or by marketing contracts that are violated. For instance, if lettuce is harvested in Arizona, it has to be sold relatively quickly before it deteriorates. If there are any disruptions between harvesting and in the store, the crop can be completely ruined. Each crop, and food has slightly different issues when it comes to timing. An agricultural economist is specifically trained to account for the particular production cycle of a crop.

Much of our food is planted every year and has a growing cycle of 70 days or more. In this relatively short time, weeding and fertilizing has to happen at critical stages, and harvesting has to be optimized to obtain maximum production. Other food grows in orchards and here the production requirements are quite different. The timing of trimming, fertilizing and watering are spread out throughout the year. Any failure in the timely delivery can affect future production for several years. Animal products have their own timely production requirements. Fisheries have their own challenges. Essentially each crop has highly specific issues.

A case in point is an almond orchard in the California Central Valley. A young father of two girls, owned a medium sized almond orchard he inherited from his Grandfather. He was also a crop duster and when his plane failed he lost his life. Consequently his almond farm lay neglected for 3 years and it took several years to recuperate the orchard. This loss of production amounted to several million dollars. The analysis involved a field trip to map the orchard and document the state of the trees.

The orchard had several sections with trees of different ages, and the impact varied in each section. There was also one section of young trees with state-of-the-art drip irrigation which was a complete loss. In addition to the different sections, the orchard grew two varieties of almonds, causing price and production to be calculated differently. All these issues made the calculation of damages more complex and it was important to account for all of them in order to estimate accurate long term damages. The long term effects of this significant interruption of the orchard was spread out over the time to full recovery.

Another case, is a drip irrigation system installed for a vineyard in Northern California. The installation of drip irrigation is very expensive. Once installed, it is very expensive to fix in any substantial manner, especially once the vineyard is planted. Any disturbance to the young grape seedlings means lost production in future years. In this particular case, the pipes and the emitters and the general layout were not optimal for this particular land, which was hilly and had poor drainage soil. Consequently the seedlings did not grow optimally. This was only noticed several years into growing the vines such that recovery took several more years.

In this case, working for the defendant, the irrigation installer, it could be shown that other factors contributed more to the lack of performance than the drip system. Because vineyards are increasingly established in marginal lands, many factors can contribute to poor performance and only an experienced agriculture expert witness can develop a matrix of damages that can be used to negotiate a settlement.

Unlike the calculations of damages in the non-agricultural world, in agriculture, a speedy settlement is preferable in order to avoid more and larger damages. If agricultural production lays dormant because of some dispute, future damages can increase exponentially. Also, in agriculture, prevention is often better than treatment. This is especially true for wildfires where certain practices, such as controlled burning can reduce the risk of larger wildfires.

Industrial agriculture can cause widespread damages to the environment and to local communities whose health might be affected by herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. While much of these impacts translate into policy issues, some attempts have been made to sue agricultural industries. Monsanto is being sued because its pollen and seeds pollutes nearby farms, and Monsanto sues nearby farms because it is growing its patented crops. Waste from large industrial hog farms, is a hidden cost in industrial scale agriculture. In all cases, an agricultural economist is more suited to assess damages.

Overall, economic damages in agriculture are complex and require a thorough knowledge of the particulars of a specific crop.

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