| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Dec 12 A weeklong blast of
sub-freezing temperatures across California has damaged the
state's $2 billion citrus crop, but it will take several weeks
before the extent of the loss is quantified, agricultural
industry officials said on Wednesday.
The National Weather Service has forecast a warming trend in
California as the week goes on, promising much-needed relief to
orange growers who have been scrambling to protect their
orchards from frost since early this month.
Overnight temperatures crept up to around 30 Fahrenheit
(minus 1 Celsius) in most of the state's citrus-producing areas
late Tuesday and into Wednesday morning, after having dropped
into the low to mid-20s F for much of the previous seven nights.
"The worst is behind us for the time being," industry group
California Citrus Mutual said in a statement on Wednesday.
But the prolonged chill is expected to take a toll on
California's lucrative harvests of navel and mandarin oranges,
and will leave the surviving crop more vulnerable to any
additional frost that may occur later this season.
Citrus Mutual called the recent cold spell the "earliest
severe freeze event" in more than 25 years for growers in the
San Joaquin Valley of central California, which accounts for the
bulk of the state's citrus crop.
"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," Citrus
Mutual President Joel Nelsen said.
"There is no doubt that damage has occurred across the
citrus belt," he added. "For some, the damage is major. For
others, the damage is manageable. It just depends upon location
It will take growers and fruit inspectors three to four
weeks to ascertain the extent of losses, in volume and dollar
value, Citrus Mutual spokeswoman Alyssa Houtby said.
THICKER SKINS, HIGHER SUGAR HELP
Still, damage is expected to be less than the devastating
losses sustained during the last two significant California
citrus freezes, which occurred in 1998 and 1990 and cost the
industry hundreds of millions of dollars, officials said.
As of Wednesday, 85 percent of the navel crop remained to be
picked, while 75 percent to 80 percent of mandarins, including
tangerines, clementines and cuties, were still on the trees, she
Ripening navel oranges are generally able to withstand
temperatures as low as 28 F, while the smaller, thinner-skinned
mandarins are less cold-tolerant, in danger of perishing if the
mercury falls below 32 F, Houtby said.
The lemon crop, another pillar of the state's citrus
industry, has mostly been harvested already she said.
California produces 85 percent of the nation's fresh citrus
fruit year-round, grossing roughly $2 billion annually for its
growers. The state's 285,000-acre (115,335-hectare) industry
also is a major citrus supplier for China, Japan and Korea,
Houtby said. Most of the nation's juice-producing oranges come
Because citrus fruit is harvested in winter, farmers are
accustomed to dealing with frost and have developed better
methods of safeguarding their crop against cold over the years.
Growers kept wind machines and irrigation sprinklers running
in their orchards overnight during much of the past week in
order to circulate warmer air at ground level and keep frost at
bay. Those efforts have cost farmers an estimated $28.8 million
since last Tuesday, the Citrus Mutual said.
The earlier in the season a cold snap occurs, the greater is
the potential for damage because the fruit is smaller and more
of it remains to be picked. Fortunately this season, the fruit's
sugar content has run higher than normal, providing extra
internal resilience to the cold, Houtby said.
The Citrus Mutual also said there was enough freshly picked
fruit on hand already to supply the market through the holiday
season without driving up consumer prices.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)