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Weeklong freeze puts California citrus crops in jeopardy

Temperatures in citrus-growing areas in California’s San Joaquin Valley once again dipped to potentially damaging levels the night of Dec. 10 and early morning of Dec. 11. That made seven nights out of eight that temperatures were low enough to cause concern, and the cumulative effect, in spite of frost-protection measures, could now mean that there is some fairly extensive damage.

“Now it looks like we are finally through this event,” Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA, said Dec. 11. Satsuma-MandarinsMandarins (above) are more at risk to freeze than Navels, which are more tolerant of the cold temperatures, though early fruit maturity and high sugar content will help minimize damage in some cases.“We still had critical temperatures this morning,” but the talk is that “we are going to move back into more normal scenario of [temperatures in] the upper 20s and lower 30s for the next several nights.”

Temperatures below 27 degrees for several hours can damage Navel oranges and lemons, while more sensitive Mandarins are susceptible to damage at 32 degrees.

Frost-protection measures such as wind machines and application of water to the groves can provide three or four degrees of protection.

“We’ve had seven out of eight nights where temperatures have been cold enough long enough in one area or another so that almost every area has had at least one if not two or more nights of durations that you would anticipate having some damage,” Blakely said. “So it is going to be fairly uniformly spread over the Valley.”

The extent of the damage was being assessed and would not be known for another two or three weeks. After the first few nights, CCM was saying that the damage was expected to be “slight to moderate.” Now, “I think we would have to say moderate to severe damage,” Blakely said.

“Certain areas were in the low- to mid-20s for an extended time, and there will be some damage out there, no question, but it is too early to tell what the extent of it is,” Scott Mabs, president of Homegrown Organic Farms in Porterville, CA, said Dec. 11. “What percentage and how much of the industry is affected you just don’t know at this point. Within a couple of weeks, we will begin to really understand” the effects of the extended freeze. “There is not a lot to say right now besides that.”

Frost-protection measures were helpful,” said Mabs, who was in an orchard evaluating the effects of the freeze when The Produce News reached him on his cell phone. In many cases, “you could gain your three to four degrees” necessary to keep the orchards above the danger zone “by having your water and wind machines running. Without it, the damage would have been much more extensive, no question.”

A CCM press release dated Dec. 10, with one more night of freezing temperatures anticipated, stated that growers “started wind machines around 8 p.m. last night in preparation for below-freezing conditions. A strong inversion layer coupled with frost-protection measures helped raise temperatures in the grove as high as four to five degrees in some cases. However, the cumulative impact of this freeze episode and the long duration of critical temperatures will result in some damage for both the Mandarin and Navel crop.

“Preliminary assessments by the County Agriculture Commissioners show damage, the extent of which, however, cannot be determined until the freeze event concludes.”

Mandarins “are expected to incur a greater degree of damage in comparison to the cold-tolerant Navel crop,” according to the release. “Early fruit maturity and high sugar content will provide some internal protection from frost damage, but the cumulative impact of cold temperatures over several nights is a concern.”

Advanced weather forecasting systems have enabled the industry to have on hand a “sufficient amount of harvested fruit to supply the market through the holiday season without affecting consumer prices,” the release said. “Industry representatives and government officials are currently developing inspection protocols to ensure that damaged fruit does not enter the marketplace.

“At this point of the season, 12-15 percent of the Navel crop and 20 percent of the Mandarin crop has been harvested, leaving a significant percentage of the crop at risk of damage.

A Dec. 11 CCM press release stated that “Tuesday night temperatures were up considerably following the earliest severe freeze event in over 25 years for Valley citrus growers. Some isolated cold spots persist, but overall the worst is behind us for the time being.

“Generally, grove temperatures held at about 30 degrees with wind protection throughout most of the San Joaquin Valley last night, providing a much needed reprieve for weary trees, equipment and growers,” according to the press release. “However, after seven consecutive nights of low overnight temperatures, damage is expected, the extent of which is now being assessed by industry and county and state inspectors. “

The release quoted CCM President Joel Nelsen as saying, “Although temperatures are now on the upswing, the compound effect of a seven-day freeze event has made the fruit more susceptible to damage at higher temperature points. There is no doubt that damage has occurred across the citrus belt. For some, the damage is major, for others the damage is manageable. It just depends upon location and the variety.”

A series of meetings by industry representatives, growers and regulatory personnel took place Dec. 10 “to determine the scope of the damage and how to avoid shipping damaged fruit into the marketplace,” the release stated.

“In the past decade the industry has made significant advances in technology at the packinghouse,” according to the press release. “We can now see, literally, what damage exists internally in each piece of fruit. This technology has cost most packinghouses hundreds of thousands of dollars, which will reap dividends this year.”

Nevertheless, “damage assessment can be an arduous task,” the release continued. “Starting in the field, extreme and identifiable damaged fruit will be eliminated from the fresh market and directly shipped to the juice plant. For California citrus, juice plants are, by design, a salvage operation for lower-quality fruit.

“Sending fruit to the juice plant is certainly not ideal for growers from a revenue perspective,” Nelsen said in the release. “Generally speaking, the return for juiced fruit is only sufficient to cover harvesting costs.”

The industry has collectively agreed “as a precautionary effort, to wait 48 hours to pack fruit harvested on or after December 11, 2013 to allow state and county inspectors ample time to conduct further inspections for damage at each of the 81 packinghouses in the Central Valley,” according to the release. “The voluntary wait period will not create any delays in availability to the marketplace. Packinghouses estimate that enough fruit was harvested prior to the freeze to sustain market supply through the holidays.”

Frost-protection costs for seven days totaled an estimated $32.4 million to protect the Valley’s $1.5 billion citrus industry., the release stated.

Strawberries and avocados also hit

The extended cold spell also affected strawberries and avocados, and to a minor extent some vegetable crops on the California coast.

Some strawberry fields in Santa Maria were still in production, though nearing the end of the season, and the cold temperatures brought the harvest there to a halt.

In Oxnard, Watsonville, CA-based Well-Pict Inc. was about 75 percent finished with its fall strawberry crop when temperatures dipped below freezing for several hours the night of Dec. 7. The freeze damaged some of the fruit that was about to be harvested as well as some blossoms and very young, green fruit.

“We lost the front end of this week’s production” as well as some fruit that would have been ready to harvest on three or four weeks, Dan Crowley, sales manager for Well-Pict, said Dec. 11. “We will go back in on Friday to harvest.”

However, he expects a gap of three weeks or so between the end of the fall crop and the beginning of the spring crop, whereas normally the company would go from one directly into the other around the first of the year.

However, the cold temperatures are beneficial in the long run for the strawberry plants themselves.

Avocados also experienced some damage from the cold, mostly in the San Luis Obispo County area north of Santa Barbara, according to David Fausett, retail sales manager for Mission Produce Inc. in Oxnard.

In areas where frost-protection measures were being used, temperatures got down to as low as 25 degrees “for an extended period of time,” he said Dec. 11. In unprotected areas, they reached as low as 23 degrees.

“It is too early to tell what the expectation of loss is,” but the general feeling is that growers could have lost 10 million to 15 million pounds of fruit, out of the estimated total crop of about 325 million pounds for the state, he said.

In Ventura County, which is the major production area for Mission, “we are OK on avocados, from what I understand,” he said.