By TIM HEARDEN
RED BLUFF, Calif. -- For a few nights this past month, Bev Seale didn't get much sleep.
The Capay, Calif., orange grower was busy checking her groves for frost damage as temperatures dipped below freezing night after night.
"We were very fortunate that we avoided the freeze," said Seale, whose Charlie's Oranges had a trade show booth at the Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale here. "I checked all night long, but we made it."
Many citrus producers in the Golden State were as fortunate, as the mid-January cold snap that gripped key growing regions in the Central Valley appeared to cause only minimal damage.
"Up to this point, we're not seeing much if any significant damage," Bob Blakely, California Citrus Mutual's director of industry relations, said on Jan. 28. "We're finding pockets of damage. The county has been out cutting fruit and looking at fruit, but they're finding just a few (with damage) that are actually scorable.
"I think the packing houses are going to have to be on the lookout for it and use some extra care in sorting," he said. "The counties are also going to continue to be inspecting at the packing houses for several more weeks to make sure no damaged fruit makes its way into the marketplace."
Likewise, strawberry growers have seen very little damage despite the cold nights, said Carolyn O'Donnell, spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission.
"There may be individual ranches, depending on their location, with more damage than other ranches," she said. "In general, the damage overall was very minimal."
Growers have been on edge in the past month as the lack of precipitation or cloud cover has led to some chilly nighttime lows. In Hanford, Calif., the temperature had dipped below freezing 19 nights in January as of Jan. 29, including 12 straight nights from Jan. 11-22, according to the National Weather Service.
The thermometer plunged to as low as 22 degrees in Hanford on Jan. 14 and 23 degrees the following two nights, the weather service reported.
Frigid temperatures throughout the West took its toll on other crops. In Arizona, which provides much of the nation's leafy greens during the winter, the cold froze the heads of lettuce and affected their quality and yield, causing the price to more than double.
In California, cooler weather has slowed the growth of winter vegetables and led to mixed growth results for small grain crops, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Sacramento.
Among citrus fruit, mandarins are the most susceptible to cold and start to freeze at about 32 degrees, the Exeter-based Citrus Mutual explained. Because many mandarin trees were planted in recent years as the fruit's popularity soared, they are grown in colder areas outside the traditional citrus belt.
So far, citrus growers have spent about $33 million this season deploying wind machines to keep the warm air closer to the ground and irrigation to raise the temperature in the groves, CCM reports.
The cold hasn't been as severe as last season, when the citrus industry spent more than $100 million on crop protection during a two-month dry spell. Mandarin orange growers lost an estimated 35 percent of their crop last year while about 15 percent of the navel crop was damaged by frost, Citrus Mutual estimated.
This year's high sugar content in oranges has helped protect them because sugar inhibits freezing, Blakely explained. Also, warmer weather earlier in the month raised the internal temperatures of the fruit, he said.
However, it's still too soon to know exactly how much fruit was affected, he said.
"The kind of freeze we had sometimes takes weeks to show up," he said.
California Citrus Mutual: http://www.cacitrusmutual.com/