Central and Southern California citrus, avocado and strawberry growers reported widespread crop damage inflicted by nearly a week of subfreezing, nighttime temperatures.
"They were very cold temperatures with long durations," said Curt Anderson, spokesman for Sunkist Growers Inc., the Los Angeles-based cooperative that represents 6,000 growers in California and Arizona. "With the temperatures we had, we know we have had quite a bit of damage."
Growers and agricultural officials said it will take at least a week before the full extent of the frost damage is known and what effect it will have on retail prices.
Growers used wind machines, helicopters and running water to limit the damage brought on by cold overnight temperatures that persisted in most areas early Monday. However, temperatures were a few degrees above the record lows set Christmas Eve and the night after. The mercury dipped into the low 40s in Los Angeles and San Diego and below freezing at many points in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in the pre-dawn hours Monday. The low of 27 degrees at the University of California measuring station in Riverside tied a record for Dec. 28 set in 1930.
"We had cold weather at the end of January last year," Anderson said, "but the temperatures were not this severe."
Check Points Sought
The cold snap came at a bad time for many summer citrus crops that will not mature for a few more months, and, as a result, are more vulnerable to frost damage.
"The navel oranges are being harvested right now and their high sugar content serves as insulation," said Mike Henry, a spokesman with the California Farm Bureau.
"There's a likelihood of a significant loss of avocados and lemons," said Chris Taylor, farming manager for the Limoneria Assn., a partnership of family farms near Santa Paula in Ventura County. "We expect as much as 20% of the summer lemon production to be affected by the freeze."
North San Diego County strawberry grower Mary Hillbrecht said: "The plants are kind of shocked right now. All of the blooms have gone."
"We have several thousand trees that have been damaged," said Bob L. Vice, owner of Walker Vice Nursery in Fallbrook, where avocado orchards were hard hit by temperatures that hit a low of of 22 degrees. "That's pretty darned cold for a tree that is supposed to be a subtropical tree.
"This is the begining of the avocado season and we had to be very sure that none of the bad fruit gets into the pipeline."
Worried about the prospect of damaged fruit reaching supermarkets, the California Citrus Mutual, a trade association, has asked state agricultural official to set up check points along highways to inspect fruit.
"We want to maintain quality for the entire industry," said Joel Nelsen, president of the association. "The problem is we cannot cover it all ourselves."
Cloudy skys early this week will help to keep nighttime temperatures from plunging. The cool, moist weather should also help in minimizing crop damage, say growers. Dry, windy weather would only serve to kill off more crops.
"Tonight we will probably be safe," Vice said. "It will be nice to get to bed at night."