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Freeze of ’07 lingers on, lessons learned

The hard freeze of ‘07 will get worse for California and Arizona agriculture before it gets better. My guess is that when the final tally is in, the damage may be closer to $2 billion. There is a lot more damage there than most government officials now realize.

The first Arctic air mass rolled through the state Jan. 12. Ten days later citrus, avocado and vegetable producers were still battling frost, and damage was still occurring. It has been an agonizingly slow-developing disaster.

As I was writing this, a San Diego County independent PCA, Jim Thompson, called and reported widespread avocado and citrus crop and tree damage in the Southern California valleys. Hillside avocadoes may have been spared serious damage. Nurserymen in all areas of the state were hit hard. “Even Oleander and Eucalyptus were damage,” he said.

Strawberries and artichokes were hit harder than most realize.

Central California citrus growers were continuing to frost protect, some for almost two weeks straight, as the industry attempted to put a dollar on a moving target.

A couple of things are evident coming out of the freeze. The propane industry, which has been ballyhooing its product with a massive PR campaign, dropped the ball. Citrus growers lost crop because the industry did not have enough propane to keep all wind machines running. However, more importantly, there were reports of running dangerously low on propane supplies for all propane customers.

Running out of propane for the citrus industry is one thing, failing to deliver fuel to homes, hospitals and nursing homes is another. The state needs to step in and make sure the industry has the storage capacity to meet the needs of the state -- even for the 100-year freeze. This represents a far greater crisis than losing a citrus crop.

The citrus industry bore the brunt of this freeze, however, through it all it was evident the California/Arizona citrus industry is light years away from the old pro-rate, marketing order industry of years past.

It is an industry united. It is an industry market oriented, vowing to keep bad fruit off the market to protect consumer confidence. It is an industry where growers understand the value of insurance rather than looking to the government to bail them out in a freeze. It is an industry that will not just survive the freeze of ’07, but it expects to prosper in ’08 and beyond.

One of the major changes now under way in the industry is the planting of what I call easy peel citrus in the Tangelo/Tangor family, like Murcott, Minneola, W. Murcott and Clementine mandarins. The market for this citrus type has been very good and is growing for California producers.

These were hard hit by the freeze. Few had been harvested before the cold weather arrived. Second thoughts about this new trend? I found Fresno County, Calif., citrus grower Nick Hill’s response to that question insightful: “There is good money in fruit like Murcott. The consumer wants it. If you can make money for eight or nine years without a freeze, I think that is a pretty good business investment.”

The freeze of ’07, although devastating, is clearly showing that the California citrus industry has evolved from regulated, almost welfare-like industry to one business-oriented and united.


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