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Artic blast heavily damages Western citrus crop

A disappointingly few but hardy California and Arizona citrus growers could be spending their sixth sleepless night in row tonight trying to ward off bitter cold from damaging what good fruit they have left in the wake of a devastating artic cold front that barreled through the West over the weekend.

The sleepless in California’s citrus belt are the lucky ones with something worth trying saving.

Many of their fellow citrus producers are lining up harvest crews and trucks to quickly haul damaged citrus to juice plants before the weather warms and makes their 2006-07 citrus crop totally worthless. Even it is successfully juiced, the return will not be more than the cost of picking and hauling.

Ninety-three (93) million boxes of California citrus valued at about $1 billion were on the trees when a mid-January Siberian Express cold front sent temperatures into the low teens and upper 20s in most citrus growing areas. Sixty million of those cartons were Navel oranges.

Major damage from the cold also has been reported to the state’s avocado crop in Southern California where strawberry growers also have been put six weeks behind in strawberry shipping volume due to bud damage to plants, according to the California Strawberry Commission.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Friday proclaimed a state of emergency for California due to the extremely low temperatures.

On Tuesday he asked for federal disaster help in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns. The governor estimated total financial losses to the state’s agriculture at $1 billion in damages to citrus, avocado, vegetable and strawberry crops. He called the losses catastrophic.

Citrus has felt the brunt of the damage. Only about 30 percent of this year’s citrus crop had been harvested before the bone-chilling cold into descended into California’s agricultural valleys last Friday and stayed for hour and hour, night after night.

Growers turned on wind machines early; left water running all day, and started bonfires on the perimeter of groves to try and save crops, but it was mostly to no avail.

Damage estimates are all over the board. California’s secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture A. G. Kawamura pegged the loss at $700 million Monday. That has since been scaled back by CDFA to a little less than $500 million.

Bob Blakely director of growers services for California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, Calif.declined to give a damage estimate. “We will start gathering damage estimates next week with conference calls to growers and shippers. It will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Claire Smith of Sunkist Growers estimated 70 percent of all citrus was still on the trees when the freeze hit. “Fifty to sixty per cent of that is gone,” she estimated.

The Central San Joaquin Valley’s 280,000 acres of citrus was the hardest hit, particularly the Navel orange crop and the so-called specialty citrus like mandarins and tangerines.

Six days after the first damaging frost night, Smith characterized the ’07 frost damage as more devastating than the 1998 freeze that cost growers as much as $700 million but not yet as devastating as the 1990 freeze when 20-straight hours of damaging chill virtually wiped out the state’s citrus crop valued then at about $800 million.

“There was nothing left after 1990. There is some left now,” she said.

The difference this time has been that inversion layers developed in certain areas, raising the temperatures. In other areas, temperatures did not drip to devastating levels.

Also the lemon crop in the Ventura area has so far been spared devastating damage.

“There were a few (San Joaquin Valley) growers who have undamaged fruit still out fighting with water and wind machines Tuesday night, but they have been fewer and fewer each night,” said Blakely.

Growers have already started harvesting damaged fruit for juice to beat the rush to the juice plants. Temperatures are expected to remain cold but above freezing over the next week and that will preclude the juice from deteriorating on the tree. Not surprising, juice prices have started to fall as fresh fruit prices soared.

Fortunately for Yuma, Ariz. growers, 75 percent of the lemon crop had been packed when temperatures plunged as low as 20 degrees in citrus groves there.

Unfortunately, the desert specialty citrus crop fared no better than California’s specialty citrus.

“We’ve lost about half of our minneola crop,” according to Associated Citrus Packers’ chief executive officer Mark Spencer. “We were in the early stages of harvest with about 80 percent of the crop on the trees when the freezing weather arrived.”

The winter blast also wiped out the remaining 25 percent of the lemon crop, Spencer added.

The grapefruit crop was unharmed by the frost.

“We’re more concerned now with the condition of the trees and setting next year’s crop,” Spencer explained. “The next step beyond (leaf) defoliation is the potential damage to the wood at the small to medium branch level. The longer the freeze, the more damage to the tree’s health.”

Colder temperatures kept Arizona and California desert vegetable harvest crews out of the fields until mid-day, reducing daily lettuce supplies and sending lettuce prices higher.

It had been a cold winter before the Siberian Express arrived and Blakely said that hardened the trees, precluding any major tree damage from the frost. “The trees experienced weeks of cold weather ahead of the frost. They were basically dormant when the freeze it.” He added that the cold should have no impact on next year’s California crop.

While the navel crop has obviously been hammered, the jury will remain out on the estimated 25-million carton summer Valencia orange crop until closer to harvest. Valencias did not escape damage just because it was small. There is little sugar in the smaller fruit and the lower the sugar level, the more damage from cold temperatures.

However, Blakely pointed out that after last freeze by harvesttime in April and May there was good quality harvestable fresh fruit on the trees. “What happened was that some of the fruit that was not severely damaged by the frost had time to heal before harvest and we had some excellent quality fruit by harvesttime.”

Ninety percent of citrus sold fresh in U.S. supermarkets is from California. This includes 95 percent of navels and 98 percent of lemons.

Already CDFA and others have stepped up packinghouse inspections to prevent damaged fresh fruit from reaching supermarket shelves. After the last major freeze, damage fruit reached unsuspecting consumers and it took two years for the industry to regain consumer confidence in California fresh market citrus.

No crop-damaging weather is easy for growers to stomach, but this freeze is particularly disheartening to Navel growers who were looking at a smaller, but tasty crop that they had already spent an estimated $60 million to protect for 20 nights before the artic blast hit.

“We had a great year last year, and the fruit this year looked good. It was a real good eating piece of fruit,” Smith said. Consumers would have liked it.

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email: [email protected]

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