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Produce: What Survived?

January 03, 1991|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although the arctic freeze has decimated certain California crops, produce counters will by no means be empty.

"We still have an awful lot of things that are available," says Dick Spezzano, vice president of produce for the Vons Cos.

Pears, apples, potatoes and onions, for instance. Citrus and vegetables will also continue to be available, thanks to Florida growers; vegetables are coming from Mexico, which will soon be sending melons, and tree fruit and grapes are being shipped from Chile.

"The big devastation is in California citrus," Spezzano says. The worst losses were in navel oranges--the San Joaquin Valley lost 70% of its crop--and in tangerines, which were the main loss in the Coachella Valley. Grapefruit fared better because of its thicker skin.

About 20% of the avocado crop in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties was damaged, but rains lessened the effects of the cold in San Diego County, according to Spezzano.

Lori Takahama, public relations manager for Sun World International, which farms more than 10,000 acres in the Coachella Valley, reports that tangerines and royal mandarins suffered "substantial damage." There was some damage to grapefruit, but green and red-leafed lettuce seem to have emerged in good shape.

Hot house and indoor crops such as enoki mushrooms and herbs were not affected by the freezing temperatures. And sugar snap peas are still available because they are coming from Guatemala.

But Karen Caplan, president of Frieda's Inc., a leading marketer of exotic produce, bemoans the loss of the cherimoya crop. Frieda's had anticipated selling half a million pounds of this fruit. Grown in the Santa Barbara area, cherimoyas suffered an 80% to 90% loss. Passion fruit and blood oranges were other victims.

Frieda's represents 250 products, and Caplan expects to fill in the gaps by bringing in "anything we can get our hot little hands on."

Future arrivals include elephant garlic from Chile in January. Starting in February, there will be passion fruit, tamarillos and feijoas from New Zealand. Dried persimmons from Chile have just arrived. Horn melons are coming from New Zealand, and Mexico is supplying squash.

Although gloomy forecasters predict higher prices for produce, Caplan is optimistic. "I don't anticipate that items not affected by the freeze will undergo any change in price," she says.

Like other produce dealers, Debra Cohen, national sales, Melissa's/World Variety Produce, is still assessing freeze damage. "I don't know what is not going to be available," she says. "I have a feeling it's going to be pretty dim."

Local watercress has been frozen out; parsley fields have suffered; California-grown baby vegetables could not endure the cold, and prices should rise for cilantro and leeks.

On the brighter side, pearl onions from out of state will be in good supply by mid January, Cohen says. Rhubarb from Oregon will help make up for California shortages; Arizona is supplying squash, and shiitake and oyster mushrooms grown out of state will also continue to arrive.

Specialty imports that shoppers can turn to include radicchio from Italy, shallots from France and Belgian endive from Belgium.

Jan DeLyser, executive vice president of the Fresh Produce Council, takes a cautious point of view. "Anything grown in California was affected," she says.

A slow down in production is one result. Vegetables don't grow as quickly in cold weather, DeLyser points out, and the harsh cold has forced delay of picking until later in the morning, thus reducing the time available for harvesting.

She notes that citrus prices have shot up considerably, while lettuce prices have not escalated to the same extent. One factor may be that the demand for lettuce weakens during the holidays, she said.

The good news is that Chilean fruit is arriving in California in strong volume. The current harvest in that country is dominated by grapes followed by plums, nectarines, peaches and raspberries. Kiwi, apples and pears are due for picking in February and March.

Since the Chilean citrus harvest is over and will not resume until June, Chilean citrus fruits "will probably not play a role in this particular situation," says Patricio de Gregorio, commercial counselor with the Chilean Trade Bureau in Los Angeles. However, he adds, " . . . if any crops that were to be harvested in the future were damaged by this cold weather, then the Chilean fruit will probably play a significant role in filling up supermarket aisles."

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