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Agriculture: Despite heavy damages from drought and cold, 1990 state farm revenues are expected to show an increase.

January 06, 1991|MARIA L. La GANGA and NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The worst freeze since 1937 and the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days combined to deliver an estimated $1.2-billion hit to California agriculture in 1990--a one-two punch so hard that few can remember its equal.

The December cold wiped out entire crops in parts of the citrus belt, and some growers stand to lose the farm over the 14-day dip in temperature. Crop-damage estimates have reached the $700 million mark, and some 15,000 farm workers and citrus packers could be laid off.

"The leaves are rolled up and the fruit. . .you can mash with your hand," said Robert Bream, who lost the entire citrus crop at his 150-acre grove in Lindsay. "We don't have anything that is of any commercial value as far as fresh fruit is concerned."

More amazing than the damage--split bark and dried leaves from the freeze, distressed trees and unplanted land from the drought--is the fact that the double trouble did not cripple California agriculture.

Far from it, in fact. In 1990, state agricultural economists estimated that California farm revenues would reach $18 billion for the year, up from $17.5 billion in 1989. Even as they assessed freeze damage and told farmers that the week's rainfall would do nothing to reverse the drought, they stood by their earlier projections.

"The California agriculture industry is so diversified that a severe damage to one of its crops will not have a devastating impact on agriculture revenues in general," said Frank Limacher, agricultural economist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Unlike Florida, which faced a crippling freeze a year ago, California is not dependent on a single crop. In Florida, oranges made up 22% of the state's $5.8 billion farm economy in 1988, the most recent non-freeze year. In California, oranges represent only 2.4% of farm receipts.

"Citrus is an important part of California agriculture, but it's by no means a dominant feature," said Elmer Learn, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis. "We think of ourselves as a state that's dominated by fruits and vegetables, but our most important commodities are dairy products and alfalfa and cotton and things of that nature."

But while the general outlook is strong, Learn and other economists point out that the drought is still with us, heading into its fifth year. And the freeze is the worst to hit California citrus since the industry was launched in the 1870s.

"It's a bad situation, the worst in California history in terms of cold weather," said Ray Borton, CDFA'S senior agricultural economist.

The December freeze is one of the worst the 74-year-old Bream has seen--and he has seen many.

"I was born between Azusa and Glendora on an orange grove, and I've been involved in one way or another with citrus ever since," Bream said. "This is not a happy new year."

Bream's entire orange crop was damaged, although some fruit may be saved to produce juice. If he can salvage his crop in that fashion, Bream said he might just earn enough money to cover the cost of picking and transportation.

"If it is picked and hauled to the juice plant, there's a question now whether there's enough salvage value there to pay those costs," he said.

Bream fought the chill with wind machines, water and a limited number of orchard heaters. At first he was trying to save the fruit, but, as the wildly expensive heat simply sailed off into the sky, he said he knew that the most he could hope for was to save the trees.

"If it weren't for salvaging the trees, we would have been better off to not turn on a wind machine or the water and to just go to bed and forget it," he said.

Damage also was extensive on the six acres of lemons and oranges grown by Solon Boydston in Porterville. When temperatures fall well below freezing, "there's nothing you can do. It's like having a house with all the windows out," Boydston said.

"My family has been though every major freeze since the turn of the century," said the 68-year-old Boydston, who owned 240 acres of orchards until he sold out two years ago. "Now most everyone has written off their crop. Their concern is what's going to happen next year" because of tree damage.

"It's really going to be hard on some of these small towns," he said. "Many people are unemployed all of a sudden." And many of the packing houses that have no fruit to process still have debts to pay, he said.

While it is still too early to assess the cold snap's full effects, many of the hardest-hit counties have tallied up preliminary damage estimates and begun filing for disaster relief. Early estimates point to a $700-million price tag, which includes crop damage but little tree damage. The full effects will not be apparent until spring.

Tulare County, where Bream and Boydston grow oranges, felt the greatest pain. Estimates range from $200 million to $250 million in freeze-related losses.

Ventura and Kern counties are tied for second place, reporting $100 million in losses each.

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