Crop damage from freezing temperatures could surpass last winter's record loss of $45 million, Ventura County agricultural officials said Monday.
Terry Schaeffer, an agricultural meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Santa Paula, said: "We're telling farmers to stock up on fuel for their heaters and wind machines, get a good rest and get prepared."
The cold has also taken a toll on flowers and shrubs in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. Retail nursery owners say they are receiving scores of telephone calls from frantic homeowners who have watched their plush green garden plants turn black, brown and droopy.
Schaeffer said hour-by-hour logs of Ventura County temperatures from last week, compared to 11 months ago and the big freezes in 1978 and 1979, indicate that "this year is just as bad, if not worse than all of those years."
A three-day freeze last January was described by Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail as "the worst in county history," with lemons, avocados, Valencia oranges and strawberries hit hardest.
The extent of recent damage will not be known for another two to three weeks, when affected fruit falls from trees, officials said. But, McPhail said: "Already, lemons and oranges are showing signs of damage. It's looking pretty much the same as last January."
For three consecutive nights last week, temperatures hovered in the mid- and upper 20s for six to 12 hours, Schaeffer said. The danger temperature for citrus and avocados is 28 degrees. Hardest hit were the Camarillo-Somis area, Carpinteria, Santa Paula and Piru.
He said it was colder for longer times than it was 11 months ago.
Rain Is Welcome
The showers have been generally welcomed by growers because fruit does not freeze when it is raining. Also, rain that freezes on the ground provides some protection to trees, officials said.
Jack Dickenson, president of Limoneira Associates, one of the largest growers of citrus fruit in Ventura County, estimates that he has spent about $200,000 on heaters, wind machines and helicopters to circulate air to protect crops.
Commercial farmers aren't the only growers who are suffering.
"We've had people calling and coming in all weekend asking us what they can do," said Mike Kanevich, nursery manager at Armstrong Garden Center in Thousand Oaks.
Kanevich and other area nursery managers advise gardeners to make tent-like coverings for plants with an old sheet or gunny sack. Plastic coverings tend to trap cold air inside a plant and do more harm than good, they said.
Home gardeners are also advised not to prune damaged leaves and branches until spring. "Making an incision now will make the plant susceptible to new damage because it will have an open wound," Kanevich said.
Popular plants that are particularly sensitive to cold are bougainvillea and hibiscus.
Green Thumb Nursery in Newhall reported thousands of dollars in damage to its stock because of the lingering cold weather.
First, high winds tore away the protective cloth covering over the nursery. Then snow fell in Newhall. Before the covering could be repaired, freezing temperatures hit.
"It's been a tough couple of weeks," said John Mahler, nursery manager.