Freeze causes major damage to California citrus crops

by Ron Sterk
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KANSAS CITY – Three consecutive nights of freezing temperatures, with more forecast, have inflicted severe damage to California citrus crops, and likely to some vegetable and berry crops as well.

Although the damage has not yet been fully assessed, early estimates from trade groups put losses near $800 million. A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said damage could exceed the $700 million in losses from a freeze in 1998 that damaged 85% of the state’s citrus crop.

"About $1 billion worth of citrus fruit was susceptible to damage," the California Farm Bureau Federation said on its website. "Lemon growers expect the worst loss as that fruit has the lowest sugar content and is unable to withstand much cold."

California Citrus Mutual, a trade association representing the state’s citrus growers, estimated growers have lost between 50% and 75% of citrus crops. The California Department of Food and Agriculture said the lemon and naval orange crops were about 30% harvested when the freeze hit. The citrus crop was valued at $1,300 million.

Freezing temperatures hit a large area from the Imperial Valley to the Central Valley to the Pacific coast Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings. Temperatures were reported in the lower 20s Tuesday morning with freeze warnings in effect through Wednesday.

Based on U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts, California was expected to rank first in lemon, second in orange and tangerine, and third in grapefruit production in 2006-07.

In its Jan. 12 crop production report, the U.S.D.A. forecast the 2006-07 California lemon crop at 779,000 tons, 88% of the total U.S. crop of 885,000 tons. All orange production for the state was forecast at 1,726,000 tons, 21% of the U.S. total. The U.S. orange crop already was expected to be the smallest in 16 years because of a small Florida crop.

Damage to the avocado crop, valued at $350 million, will not be known for a few days. Last year California produced 270,000 tons of avocados, 96% of the total U.S. production of 282,400 tons, U.S.D.A. data showed. There also was concern about artichoke and spinach crops, and newly planted asparagus, cauliflower and romaine lettuce, the Farm Bureau said.

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