California citrus growers fight freezing temperatures

Icicles hang off oranges as growers use water to help keep the orchard warm during freezing weather on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, in Del Rey, Calif. Citrus farmers are no stranger to frost and use irrigation and wind machines to propel warm air through the fields and raise the temperature of the air enveloping the groves. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, MARK CROSSE)

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO — Growers throughout California are using irrigation equipment and wind machines to ward off freezing overnight temperatures that are expected to continue through the weekend.

In the first two nights of the cold snap that arrived Dec. 3, citrus growers in the San Joaquin Valley spent about $6.7 million on the labor and electricity needed to protect their 230,000 acres of orchards, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

The work comes as a storm was entering the state on Dec. 6, bringing low snow levels and more cold to the West.

“So far they’ve been effective,” Blakely said of growers’ freeze prevention efforts. “We’ve had some pretty cold temperatures, especially outside of the traditional citrus belt. We expect that probably in those colder areas we sustained some damage, particularly in the outside border trees, but we won’t really know for three or four weeks.”

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.

In Northern California, the 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. Among other problems, freezing temperature can delay the harvest of greens.

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 orange harvest began in October and is expected to continue into late spring or early summer, so about 85 percent of the fruit is still on trees. While the cold spells threaten the crop, the mild days and chilly nights are also what makes California oranges so vibrant and tasty, Blakely said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


California Citrus Mutual:

California Avocado Commission:

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