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California growers assess crops after freeze

Tim Hearden
California citrus and other growers have been busy with irrigation and wind machines to protect their crops from freezing overnight temperatures. The citrus industry has already spent $6.7 million on the labor and electricity needed to warm their orchards.

SACRAMENTO — Citrus growers in California have spent nearly $30 million using irrigation equipment and wind machines to ward off freezing overnight temperatures that lingered for about a week.

The state’s $1.5 billion citrus industry sustained moderate damage from a cold snap that arrived Dec. 3 and brought seven nights of temperatures dipping to the low 20s for long periods throughout the San Joaquin Valley, reported the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

Growers in some of the valley’s coldest pockets reported some damage to fruit, and a few small operations that didn’t have wind machines lost their entire crop, said Bob Blakely, Citrus Mutual’s director of industry relations.

However, consumers shouldn’t be affected in the short term because most packing houses escalated their harvests in anticipation of the cold spell and built up their inventories, Blakely said.

The temperature in Hanford dipped to 21 degrees and Madera got as low as 19 degrees early Dec. 5, prompting a hard freeze warning from the National Weather Service. A hard freeze watch was to remain in effect through Dec. 8.

He said the full extent of the damage won’t be known for a few weeks.

“It’s not quick and easy when you have an event like this,” Blakely said. “In 1990 when it’s 12 noon and the thermometer’s reading 25 degrees, you could make some absolute statements. But with these freezes there are no absolutes.”

To be sure, the frigid weather brought by a series of cold fronts from the north affected more than just citrus crops. In Northern California, cold weather merely encourages nut and plum trees to move into dormancy, but Red Bluff grower Tyler Christensen was irrigating on Dec. 4 just to be on the safe side, he said.

“It’s always nice to start out gradually and work your way into (the dormant months), and that’s pretty much what’s happening,” he said. “The most vulnerable time is springtime because everything is lush and green and tender. Everything now has had the whole summer on it and hardened quite a bit.”

However, avocado growers in California have been bracing for the icy temperatures that threaten to freeze the quarter-of-an-inch stems that dangle fruit from the tree and drop avocados to the ground. As with citrus fruit, growers of the state’s 55,000 acres of avocados have been using irrigation and wind machines to protect their crop, said Tim Spann, research project manager for the California Avocado Commission.

Growers of vegetables, berries and other crops have also been keeping an eye on temperatures, noted the California Farm Bureau Federation. And other growers were concerned about frost damage on newly emerged winter wheat, observed the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The cold that gripped California in the past week was punctuated by a system Dec. 6 that brought widespread snow that reached the valley floor in Shasta County and was down to 1,000 feet elsewhere. Rain from the system helped improve range conditions, according to NASS.

Oranges are vulnerable to damage if temperatures drop below 28 degrees for several hours, the CFBF explained. Of particular concern is the mandarin crop because the tiny fruit is more susceptible to cold and starts to freeze at 32 degrees.

California is the nation’s biggest supplier of fresh-market oranges, and its 285,000 total acres of citrus fruit is second only to Florida, according to Citrus Mutual. The state’s drought conditions have brought frequent freeze concerns in recent years, as the citrus industry spent about $33 million in January and over $100 million during a two-month dry spell in 2012 to warm their orchards.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Online

California Citrus Mutual: http://www.cacitrusmutual.com

California Avocado Commission: http://www.californiaavocado.com



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