PodcastWEBCAST: Central Valley citrus may be decimated

EXETER
January 15, 2007 6:01am
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•  Three nights of freezing weather add up

•  May take days to fully assess damage

Total citrus damage picture may not be known for several days. (CVBT photo)

(Updated at 1:20 p.m.; audio added)

Three consecutive nights of temperatures as low as the teens – plus the prospect of one or two more nights before the current cold wave moves east – may have resulted in massive devastation of the $1 billion Central Valley citrus crop, growers and state officials fear.

But industry experts say it’s still too early to put a price tag on the damage beyond a general figure of “several hundred million.”

(List to the assessment from Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual, in our CVBT Audio Interview. Click on the link below to listen or download.)

While the Friday night-Saturday morning freeze appeared to have been erratic, more widespread fruit damage was reported from the Saturday night-Sunday morning freezing temperatures.

Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual of Exeter, a citrus marking organization representing many of the region’s growers, says there has been “significant damage” to the Central Valley crop as well as to citrus in Southern California in Riverside County and in coast areas such as Ventura County.

About 75 percent of this year’s navel orange crop is on the trees, too immature to be picked. It is at risk of severe loss. The state’s lemon and tangerine crops are thought to have experienced widespread damage.

Mr. Nelson says it will take days before the complete picture is clear, given the huge number of trees involved and the fact that internal damage does not immediately manifest itself.

With temperatures lingering in the low 20s for hours overnight, there is little growers can do to save their crops. Wind machines, which stir up the air to incorporate the somewhat warmer air 20-30 feet above ground with the air at tree level, have been less effective because this cold wave has not seen much of an inversion layer, says Tom Dunklee, chief meteorologist for the Global Climate Center and a key forecaster for the citrus industry.

Growers have flooded their groves with irrigation water that has a higher temperature than the air in an effort to move thermometers up.

A few degrees can make the difference. Depending on their sugar content and thickness of their skins, both of which depend on maturity of the fruit, navel oranges can survive temperatures as low as 28 degrees and even as low as 25 degrees, at least for a short time.

Frozen fruit cannot be marketed as fresh. And extremely low temperatures, like those in the 1990 freeze, can damage the trees themselves.

The state has already ordered a “hold” on all citrus picked after Jan. 12 to assess any damage. Growers can make up some of the loss in a few cases by juicing the navel oranges. But if this freeze is much like that of 1998, most of the crop will end up as livestock feed or simply disposed of.

This is the third freeze to hit the Central Valley citrus belt since 1990. There had not been a freeze for 55 years before that.

In December 1998, the California citrus industry suffered a three-day freeze in which 85 percent of the total crop was lost, valued at approximately $700 million.

Drilldown


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