Freeze causes major damage to California citrus crops

by Ron Sterk
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SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — Several consecutive nights of freezing temperatures inflicted severe damage to California citrus crops, strawberries and winter vegetables last week, and resulted in nearly immediate price increases for some produce.

Freezing temperatures, many record lows, from Jan. 11 through Jan. 17 hit a large area from the Imperial Valley to the Central Valley to the Pacific coast, including the heart of California’s citrus growing region. Low temperatures in the upper teens and lower 20s were reported throughout the affected region.

"Preliminary reports indicate extensive damage," said Doug Mosebar, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, Sacramento. "The losses will be significant and will affect farmers and consumers for months to come."

The Farm Bureau estimated about $1 billion worth of citrus fruit was susceptible to damage.

Hardest hit appear to be the state’s lemon and orange crops, along with other citrus such as limes and tangerines. California Citrus Mutual, the state’s citrus growers’ organization, estimated growers lost between 50% and 75% of citrus crops. The California Department of Food and Agriculture said the lemon and navel orange crops were about 30% harvested when the freeze hit. The citrus crop was valued at $1,300 million.

"Lemon growers expect the worst losses as that fruit has the lowest sugar content and is unable to withstand much cold," the California Farm Bureau Federation said.

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.

Although only second in orange output, California is the major source of fresh oranges, while most of the oranges from Florida, the nation’s largest producer, are processed for juice. The next U.S.D.A. citrus crop report will be Feb. 9.

Wholesale and consumer prices quickly moved higher for the produce affected. Press reports from California indicated fresh oranges that had been selling for 49c a lb prior to the freeze shot up to $1.99 a lb, although they had been harvested before the freeze, and were predicted to go as high as $3.99. The Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S.D.A. showed prices f.o.b. California shipping points for naval oranges last week doubled and even tripled from a week earlier and f.o.b. prices for certain types of lemons had doubled since the freeze.

New York Board of Trade frozen concentrated orange juice futures traded higher on the news (see Page 41).

Although harvesting continued, the U.S.D.A. said California Agriculture Commissioners "requested that packers voluntarily hold fruit harvested on or after Jan. 12 for five days to determine whether it is freeze damaged."

Attempts by some growers to rush harvest just prior to the freeze were somewhat negated by a lack of labor in the region, which has been a problem for several weeks.

Use of wind machines to move the air and irrigation water to raise temperatures was only partially successful because temperatures were so far below freezing for so long, California Citrus Mutual said. Temperatures may be raised only three to five degrees with fans and water. The efforts cost citrus growers $3.1 million per night, the organization said.

There also were losses to strawberry, avocado, artichoke and spinach crops, and to new vegetable plants, including asparagus, cauliflower and romaine lettuce, the Farm Bureau said.

Strawberries ready for harvest were lost as were blossoms for the next crop. If the plants were not harmed, production would only be disrupted for a couple weeks, the California Strawberry Commission said. The U.S.D.A. reported f.o.b. strawberry prices jumped 25% to 75% following the freeze.

The California Avocado Commission estimated losses at 10% to 20%, although full damage to the $350 million crop 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.

Losses to strawberries, artichokes and other vegetables, and resulting higher prices, were expected to be short term because of quick replanting and potentially increased imports.

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. California citrus suffered a total loss from a freeze in 1990.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency in 10 counties on Jan. 12 because of the low temperatures and requested federal disaster aid.

Spared from loss because plants were in dormancy were the state’s significant grape, tree fruit and nut crops.

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