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Cold Spell Also Puts a Chill on State's Agricultural Production

January 26, 1987|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

San Diego avocado grower Bob Vice and his sons Blaine and Greg spent the weekend assessing the damage wrought by the recent cold snap.

"It's real spotty," Vice said. "There are some areas that probably won't have any fruit this year--and probably not next year. And then there are other areas (of the county) not touched at all.

"It was the coldest we've had in 20 years." At the worst, he said, "we had 13 hours below freezing--and six of them under 25 degrees."

From San Diego north through the normally temperate Southland, freezing weather and high winds have wiped out about 20% of the state's avocado crop, throttled the harvest of premium-priced early season strawberries, put vegetable row crops in San Luis Obispo County under stress and nipped flowers in the bud.

Estimate of Losses

Only a few of the affected counties have yet produced figures, but one that did, Ventura, put the crop cost at more than $11 million in lost citrus fruit, nursery products, strawberries, avocados, spinach and broccoli. For the Southland, the toll could easily exceed $20 million, according to a Times survey of county agricultural commissioners.

The result for consumers will likely be higher-than-normal flower prices for St. Valentine's Day, as well as somewhat higher produce prices in coming weeks. If so, growers may be able to recoup their early-season losses, agricultural officials said.

Even with a 20% loss in the anticipated record avocado crop, however, the result would still be the second-largest harvest in history, said Ari Crane, crop statistics manager for the California Avocado Commission. "There are still going to be a lot of avocados.

"As for prices," he said, the market decides that--and there's still plenty of avocados out there."

On the other hand, he acknowledged, some groves were knocked out entirely.

Effect of Supplies

"A lot of (the loss estimate) is still kind of tentative," said Ray Rinder, San Diego County's assistant agricultural commissioner. "And it doesn't mean that the growers will be short this year. They could recover with a steady higher price over the season. If you have an early glut and the price goes down, you have a helluva time getting it up."

Citrus losses are harder to gauge at this point, Rinder added. Immediate losses came from wind-felled crops throughout the Southern California growing region, but freeze damage takes several weeks to show up. In Orange County, "citrus got through in pretty good shape," said Wayne Appel, deputy agricultural commissioner. "Nursery stock, bedding plants and strawberries were hardest hit." The same was true in Los Angeles County, where damage was estimated at $1 million. San Bernardino County figured its loss in wind-felled grapefruit and oranges and freeze-damaged avocados and strawberries at about $2 million.

In the state's major citrus belt of the San Joaquin Valley, however, officials were taking a wait-and-see attitude. "We know that we've got some damage in citrus," said Dennis Plann, Fresno County's deputy agricultural commissioner, "but it's premature to make a complete assessment at this time."

The cost of some affected cut flowers immediately rose on the Los Angeles wholesale market, some Ventura County growers reported. Gypsophila, or baby's breath, shot up 75 cents a pound to $2.50, and 24 roses were selling at $28, they said.

Consequently, San Diego County nurseryman Mike Mellano thinks that his family-owned operation may come out ahead because of the cold snap. While estimating that he lost 5% to 10% of the flowers that would have bloomed over the next month or two, Mellano figures that higher prices during the peak of the harvest will more than make up the early loss.

On the other hand, a neighbor, he said, lost 80% of his nursery crop. "We feel we were lucky," Mellano said.

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