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California, Arizona citrus, vegetable growers still battling killing frosts

California and Arizona citrus and vegetable growers are dancing like a herd of cats on a hot tin roof, trying to decide their next moves after more than a week of bitter cold mid-January temperatures destroyed or damaged an array of crops from artichokes in Castroville, Calif., to Minneolas in Mesa, Ariz.

And the cold weather continues to linger.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared 10 counties disaster areas. Other counties are asking for the same treatment to get federal and state aid to farmers and out-of-work farm workers.

In the midst of the bitter cold, deciduous fruit and almonds, walnut and pistachio growers contently slumbered away at night, keeping warm and snug with the knowledge that the cold was providing chilling hours aplenty they had not seen in several seasons.

Citrus packinghouses frantically packed fruit gathered before the freeze, knowing that the fruit supply would soon slow to a trickle or stop altogether, depending on the final damage assessment by growers and inspectors.

A fortunate few growers with groves in warmer pockets worked frantically night after night running irrigation systems and wind machines to save at least some of the 2006-07 crop. Others saw their crops ruined after two or three nights of a hard freeze and quickly lined up picking crews to get the damaged fruit to juice plants while the weather was still cold enough to preserve the juice value of the fruit.

Only about 30 percent of California’s citrus crop on about 250,000 acres of citrus had been harvested before the bone-chilling cold descended into the agricultural valleys of California and Arizona and stayed for hours and hours, night after night. It was not uncommon for wind machines to run for eight to 12 hours per night and irrigation systems to run 24/7 to protect young trees.

An estimated 75 percent of the California navel orange crop was still on the trees when the cold front rolled through on Jan. 12. A large percentage of lemons also were on the trees as well as virtually all the easy-peel Tangelo-type citrus and all the summer Valencia orange crop.
Hardest hit

California and Arizona navel oranges appeared to be the hardest hit crop. About half was lost to freezing temperatures in the first week of the frost. Virtually all the easy-peel tangerine-like fruit was ruined by five to seven straight days of nighttime killing frosts. What low-sugar lemons that remained were also lost, although a majority of Arizona lemons were gathered before the hard freeze and many California growers got at least a portion of their lemon crops off the trees.

Strawberry, fresh vegetable and avocado producers also were hurt by the frost.

Losses are being tallied to report to the federal government for disaster relief. Freeze losses will likely total more than $1 billion from the two state’s combined annual ag income of more than $34 billion.

As the calculators were clicking away, growers were continuing to protect citrus against frost and watch frost descend on desert vegetable crops with yet another cold air mass that blasted through the West.

Here is a smattering of reports from agricultural valleys in California of the freeze damage:

Artichokes in the stores in Castroville, the artichoke capital of the world, went from $1.25 apiece to $3 apiece, as the freeze wiped out 4,000 acres of ‘chokes.

"It's real bad. We're still assessing the damage and re-evaluating what we're going to do from here," said Dale Huss, vice president of artichoke production for Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville in an article from the Santa Cruz Sentinel. "They're frozen. They're brown and limp and their vascular tissue is completely destroyed.” Ocean Mist is the largest artichoke grower in California.

Fortunately, artichoke production is low in January with the peak harvest in the Castroville area where 90 percent of the nation’s artichokes are produced in the spring and fall.

About 400 acres of artichokes in Coachella Valley destined for an early spring market also were cooked by the freeze.

Desert citrus

“The desert citrus is also pretty much history,” said independent PCA Steve West in Yuma, Ariz. “Most of what we have in Southern California and Arizona these days is lemons, and they are finished. Grapefruit in the desert is also pretty much a bust, along with the Minneola’s in Yuma. I cut some oranges here that could be used for ice cubes.”

Temperatures into the teens have growers worried about flowers for next year’s crop.

On the vegetable front, the romaine vegetables were hurt with blistering caused by the freeze.

“The iceberg is not happy, but outside of not starting to harvest until mid day, not real bad…but then again, until the product arrives at the markets, we won’t know,” said West.

“I have seen some cauliflower wilted. Much of the broccoli in the coldest spots is rubbery. The broccoli plants look OK from the road. The flower looks sad, all those tall leaves folded up, but again, in the coldest areas only -- although most areas were cold. We have fennel in Coachella we think was killed. Celery for the next few weeks will look ugly,” West reported.

Early planted bell peppers were hit with losses ranging from 10 percent to wiped out, but only about 20 percent was planted.

“My earliest watermelon field looks to have about 30 percent of the plants killed. It was planted on plastic beds with cups over the top. The super pollinator seems to be more frost sensitive than the standard Tri-X seedless. We will replant those. The sweet corn in Coachella was just starting, so no real damage there except that it will be a shade late as germination will not be quick.

Desert strawberry production was all but halted for three weeks as the frost killed buds. Most plants escaped killing damaged.

The California Strawberry Commission called it a “temporary setback that will take about six weeks to rebuild normal volumes.”

‘Can be beneficial’

“It’s winter and we expect bad weather,” explains Mark Murai, president of the commission.

“Farmers recognize that when we get an extra chill, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be beneficial. It can stimulate production later, and we could end up with a very good year.”

January and February are the lowest producing months of California strawberries. Strawberry plants continually produce fruit throughout the year and growers have only lost a portion of fruit currently on the plant. Although there has been some frost damage in the southern parts of the state, the plants are still in a very early stage. They will recover soon and produce flowers that will become the next set of fruit. Farmers are optimistic the volume of fruit will begin to return to normal production levels within a few weeks, according to the commission.

Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail’s early damage estimate for his county was $105 million, according to an article in the Ventura County Star. McPhail expects that figure to grow as do other ag commissioners who put out early figures to win designation of disaster areas.

McPhail broke down his early estimate as follows: Nursery stock, $10.2 million; Lemons $46.6 million, avocados at $28.5 million, citrus (oranges) at $13.8 million and strawberries at $5.9 million.

Imperial County suffered widespread damage to its 6,300 acres of citrus as well as in with in lettuce and cauliflower.

Imperial County Agricultural Commissioner Stephen Birdsall is miffed Imperial County was not included in the initial emergency proclamation that included Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura. “We don’t know how or why that happened. There seems to be a lot of confusion,” said in the Imperial Valley Press. He expects Imperial County to be included later.

Sunkist view

A week after the artic cold settled in, Sunkist Growers spokesperson Claire 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.

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.

“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.

“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.”

It had been a cold winter before the Siberian Express arrived and California Citrus Mutual grower services director Bob Blakely said that hardened the mature 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 hit.” He added that the cold should have no impact on next year’s California crop. Growers also were counting on some rind hardening to save at least a portion of this year’s fruit that did not face prolonged temperatures in the 20s.

Valencia question

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 fruit 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 the last freeze by harvesttime in April and May there was good quality harvestable Valencias 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.

County agricultural commissioners quickly marshaled fruit inspection teams to preclude 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.

Arizona damage

Arizona Department of Agriculture officials are tallying up the damage to that state’s 26,500 acres in citrus. Early estimates predict 75 to 90 percent of all unpicked citrus in Yuma County has been destroyed by the freezing temperatures.

About 25 percent of the lemon crop is still in the field and more than 75 percent of grapefruit, tangelos and oranges remain unpicked in Arizona.

Fortunately, in the wake of devastating 1990 and 1998, an estimated 90 percent of California citrus growers purchased at least some crop insurance on this year’s crop. It will help cover a portion of production expenses incurred in growing this year’s crop, but it is not 100 percent coverage nor does it cover revenue loss.

The return on fruit hauled to juice plants will only cover harvesting and handling costs.

The freeze affected not only an estimated 4,000 growers in both states, but at least 5,000 pickers and more than 7,500 packinghouse workers. Most of the picker are expected to find work removing good and damaged fruit from the tree. Packinghouse workers are the ones expected to be severely impacted by the lost of fruit.

California’s governor has promised economic relief for those forced out-of-work by the freeze.

A week into the freeze period, the crisis was exasperated by a propane shortage in California. Of the 12,000 wind machines in California, 7,000 are propane powered, according the citrus mutual.

Citrus growers turned angry as propane distributors told them there would be no propane deliveries to replenish tanks.

“There are millions of dollars of marketable fruit still on trees in California, and the propane industry cannot provide fuel to save it. It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Shirley Batchman, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual.

A frustrated and angry Batchman said, “The propane industry knew this cold weather was coming, and it should have been prepared.”

Lesley Garland, vice president, Western Propane Gas Association in Sacramento was sympathetic, but blamed the weather: “Unprecedented cold weather over an unprecedented stretch of time creating demand that was outweighed by supplies.”

Distributors scrambled to find additional supplies, trucking or railing propane into California from as far away as Chicago and Canada to meet the demand for propane in California. Garland admitted there is not adequate propane storage in California to meet demand like the industry has seen over the past week.

The situation has been exasperated by rules governing the number of hours a propane tanker driver can be behind the wheel.

To transport propane, the driver must have a special license and drive for only 12 hours before resting. “The California Highway Patrol has given us a special exemption for our drivers to be on the road for 14 hours rather than 12. However, he can drive only 80 hours over an eight-day period,” she explained. This is the number of hours drivers are available.

She said distributors are making “tough decisions” about available supplies and deliveries, delivering propane to homes, hospitals, nursing homes and livestock operations like poultry houses before delivering to citrus growers.

“The industry has been spending $3.1 million per night to protect fruit not damaged so far, and now we have to deal with this: an industry (propane) ill-prepared to deal with the catastrophic freeze events we are seeing,” said Batchman.

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