* Temperatures statewide plunge by as much as 20 degrees
* Strawberry crop, other produce also faces frost threat
* Snowfall strands motorists along key stretch of highway
By Brandon Lowrey
LOS ANGELES, Jan 11 An Arctic air mass has sent
temperatures plunging across California, threatening the state's
lucrative citrus harvest, its winter vegetables and its more
cold-sensitive strawberry crop, weather and agricultural experts
said on Friday.
Temperatures throughout the state fell by as much as 20
degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) below normal on Thursday
and Friday as snowfall and sub-freezing conditions forced a
17-hour closure of a key highway, Interstate 5, through the
mountains north of Los Angeles.
Authorities reopened the highway Friday morning after
thousands of motorists were left stranded overnight on either
side of the winding stretch of road known as the Grapevine or
were forced to take circuitous alternate routes.
It remained unclear how much of the state's $2
billion-a-year citrus industry, which accounts for most of the
oranges and lemons commercially available to U.S. consumers,
might be lost.
In the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of navel and mandarin
orange production in central California, low temperatures in the
teens threatened to kill citrus crops, which are in danger of
perishing whenever the mercury falls below 28 degrees, farmers'
The National Weather Service alerted growers to the danger
so they could take precautions, but there may still be a heavy
loss, meteorologist Jeff Barlow said.
"They won't be able to save all of the crops," Barlow said.
"This is going to be a pretty significant freeze event for the
central California citrus crop."
Nevertheless, California Citrus Mutual spokeswoman Alyssa
Houtby said the group's members were optimistic that damage
would be curtailed enough to avoid major shortages or price
increases. Because citrus fruit is harvested in winter, farmers
are used to dealing with frost, she said.
She said about 25 percent of the citrus harvest had already
been picked, and the rest was still on the trees.
'IT GETS A LITTLE DICEY'
Cold weather in moderation can increase the fruit's sugar
content, making it more resilient to future touches of frost,
"It can be a good thing for citrus, but when it gets down
into the lower 20s for long times, as it is expected to tonight,
it gets a little dicey," she told Reuters.
The lemon crop, primarily grown farther to the south in
Ventura County, also faced the prospect of frost over the
weekend, Houtby said.
California's strawberries, valued at roughly $2.2 billion a
year, are especially vulnerable to the cold snaps, with plants
generally unable to withstand temperatures lower than 34 degrees
for extended periods of time, said Carolyn O'Donnell of the
California Strawberry Commission.
Although much of the state's 855,000-ton annual strawberry
yield comes from Watsonville, just south of San Jose, the
harvesting season there is still months away. But the current
U.S. fresh strawberry supply depends on farmers in Ventura
County, who produce far less.
Because of the already low production, the effect of frost
damage to Ventura County crops at this time of year could be
amplified, O'Donnell said.
However, like citrus growers, strawberry farmers are taking
precautions, such as running large fans and heaters in the
Among other quintessential Californian crops threatened are
avocados, a $400 million industry generally harvested between
March and October. The largest growing areas are in San Diego
and Ventura counties, said Jonathan Dixon, research program
director at the California Avocado Commission.
"The growers I know are having a lot of sleepless nights at
the moment," Dixon said. "Most of these guys will be up all
night chasing their frost protection."
Although no further snow was expected over the weekend,
temperatures were expected to continue to drop on Saturday
before gradually warming next week, the weather service said.
In normally temperate San Diego, temperatures were expected
to reach 39 degrees on Friday night, closer to the record low of
34 degrees set in 1888 than the normal 59 degrees, said Robert
Balfour, a National Weather Service forecaster.
"The rest of the country is probably laughing at us, saying,
'You call that cold?'" Balfour said.