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Frost threat lessens as temperatures warm; damage assessment underway

Central California citrus growers are getting a respite after six days of trying to ward off fruit-destroying frost that may have caused as much as $700 million damage to the state’s crop.

Temperatures are expected to slowly warm over the next few days, but another cold front is forecast to drop nighttime temperatures into the mid-20s for three or four nights next week before warming again.

Temperatures of 28 and below pose a risk to citrus.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proclaimed a state of emergency in 10 counties hardest hit by the artic blast that moved through the state over last weekend.

Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura are the 10 counties the governor has asked that the USDA and the federal Small Business Administration offer assistance.

The emergency declaration estimates damage to the state citrus, avocado and strawberry crops at $700 million. Some are predicting damage to the citrus crop alone could be that much with the total for the state reaching $1 billion.

Meanwhile, 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 was 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.

There are more than 270,000 acres of citrus in California and already this year growers have spent about $95 million to protect fruit from frost. They had been largely successful until the artic air rushed through the state Friday and last through the weekend.

Official damage estimates will not be available until next week, however, California Citrus Mutual representing 2,000 California producers say at least a 50 percent crop has been lost.

Packinghouses Wednesday were allowed to ship fruit that was picked last Friday, the first day of the freeze. However, it is subject to inspection by county agricultural commissioners. There is also a five-day hold from day of harvesting on all fruit to ensure that damaged fruit doesn’t enter the market channels.

Fortunately, in the wake of devastating 1990 and 1998, an estimated 90 percent of California citrus growers have at least some crop insurance. 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.

According to the citrus mutual, growers will have a further financial burden as they secure funds to grow next year’s crop, realizing there will not be any income until at least March 2008.

In the meantime, fresh market prices have roughly doubled since the first night of artic temperatures.

Officials are now beginning to come to grips with the human toll from the freeze, which according to Joel Nelsen of California Citrus Mutual, totals almost 20,000 people, including 5,000 citrus pickers, 7,500 packinghouse employees and 3,500 growers.

The governor has promised economic relief for those forced out of work by the freeze.


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