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Citrus, strawberries affected by two nights of freezing temperatures in California

A second night of cold temperatures is expected to leave behind some damage to the San Joaquin Valley's citrus crop, according to a Dec. 6 press release from California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA.

"Although the extent of damage cannot be known for certain at this time, the industry along with county and state regulators will begin assessments as early as next week," the release stated.

On California's central coast, strawberries were still being harvested in the Santa Maria area when the cold snap hit, and the low temperatures of the past two nights brought that to a halt.

Avocado growers in Southern California and the Central Coast have been watching the thermometer and running frost-protection measures such as wind machines in the coldest spots, but so far avocados seem to have sustained little if any damage.

However, even colder temperatures are anticipated over the next several nights.

"In the majority of the Valley's citrus-producing areas, temperatures dropped to critical levels as early as 5 p.m. last night for mandarins and 8 p.m. for Navels and lemons," CCM stated in a Dec. 6 press release. "However, a strong inversion layer and breezy conditions helped keep temperatures manageable with frost-protection measures. On average, temperatures steadied around 27 degrees. The Navel crop will likely see some damage, but the high sugar content of the fruit at this point of the season should provide extra internal fruit protection and keep damage levels minimal."

Similarly, the Valley's lemon crop should see very minimal damage, and "lemon-producing areas along the coast have not been affected by cold weather so far this season," the release stated.

The Mandarin crop is another story. Mandarins are less cold-tolerant and "will see more damage, but again the extent of which cannot be determined at this time," according to the release. "Some isolated areas experienced temperatures in the low 20s, in which cases a greater degree of damage is expected. The most damage will surface in border rows, where the fruit has a greater exposure to cold temperatures and is less protected by frost-protection measures."

Alyssa Houby, director of public affairs for CCM, told The Produce News Dec. 6 that Navels and lemons can withstand temperatures as low as 27 or 28 degrees, while Mandarins are at risk with 32-degree temperatures.

"Last night, temperatures were around 27 degrees throughout the area, so Mandarins will probably see damage, the extend of which we don't know at this point," she said.

In some areas, temperatures were in the low 20s.

"Most of the damage we see will probably come from those areas," Houby said. "Growers were out there with frost protection, but even with frost protection it only raised the temperature about 4 or 5 degrees, which is still below that threshold for Mandarins especially, and for Navels too."

But although there has clearly been some damage to the citrus crop, the extent of which has yet to be determined, "at this point we think that supply is not going to be impacted to the extent that it should have a significant effect on price. That could change," she said, but so far "we don't see any impact to consumer prices."

Isak DuToit, vice president of export sales at Booth Ranches LLC in Orange Cove, CA, said Dec. 6, "We've been using the wind machines" to protect oranges in the San Joaquin Valley. "We don't have our numbers in from last night yet, but the night before it got down to 28 degrees in many groves and down to 26 degrees in the colder places. Running the wind machines "helps a little bit. ... maybe 2 to 3 degrees"

DuToit does not expect to see extensive damage. "The rule is 26 degrees for more than five hours, so I don't think we had any places that were that cold for that long," he said. "There may be for some growers, but for us, from the night before anyway, we didn't. For last night we don't have the numbers yet."

As for strawberries, for any fields that were still in production in Santa Maria, the last two nights of cold temperatures "would pretty much have finished off the season there," Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission, said Dec. 6.

"Down in Oxnard, I know they were concerned not so much about the Oxnard plane, because that has more of the marine influence that tempers the temperatures a little bit, but more against the hills in Santa Paula and in Fillmore," she said. Growers in those areas "had their temperature sensors engaged to alarm their smart phones when it started to approach freezing, and they had their wind machines and other frost protection measures ready to engage."

In Watsonville, where the harvest season is over and many strawberry fields have already been planted for the 2014 crop, the cold temperatures are actually beneficial to plants, she said. It will strengthen plants and improve fruit quality "come next spring."

"Oxnard didn't get below 36 [last night], but Moorpark got down to 30," said Cindy Jewell, marketing director for Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms. California Giant has blueberries in Moorpark. Growers there were not in the process of harvesting, so "they should be OK."

California Giant was still harvesting strawberries in Santa Maria, where temperatures dropped to between 26 and 28 degrees. "We are done for the season there, as a result," she said.

"Nobody has been sleeping," Jewell added. "We are taking it day-by-day. It looks like Oxnard didn't get as cold as Santa Maria," but the cold spell continues. "We really don't know what tonight is going to bring."

With regard to avocados, "I'm not hearing a lot of concern," said Rob Wedin, vice president of fresh sales and marketing at Calavo Growers Inc. in Santa Paula. "Where I don't have any reports is from San Luis Obispo County. But otherwise, I don't have any reports of damage from cold weather."

Growers have been using wind machines in the colder areas, but "I don't think wind machines went on every place that they are located," he said. "We mostly saw 32-degree temperatures."