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FROSTBITE : Chilling Effects : The cold damage to crops will lead to short- and long-term price increases for consumers.

January 10, 1991|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Normal temperatures have returned to Ventura County after a late December Arctic blast caused an estimated $100 million in damage to county crops. But the soaring produce prices left behind are anything but normal.

As farmers continue to assess their losses in the fields, consumers are counting their losses at the checkout stand.

Price increases have hit a wide swath of produce. Frost-bitten trees and plants from Ventura County alone include oranges, lemons, lettuces, strawberries, avocados and fresh-cut flowers. From Northern and Central California, citrus, artichokes, carrots and celery have been affected.

For some of these items, consumers can expect cost increases to be short-lived, soon returning to pre-freeze levels. Costs for others--namely citrus and avocados--are expected to remain above normal for some time.

According to Dick Spezzano, vice president of produce for Vons, "As far as the leaf and iceberg lettuces and other vegetables are concerned, there is an immediate price impact, but that will cleanse itself. Those vegetables are on a 90- to 120-day cycle. For citrus, it is a one-crop harvest and it has been decimated this year."

In certain areas, citrus groves were hit so hard by the frost that some trees were adversely affected, and it is expected to lower production for future harvests.

"Prices are going to be impacted for the '92 crops," said farmer Mike Shore, who also owns a packinghouse in Santa Paula. "In the San Joaquin Valley, they fear the orange crops will be affected into the '93 and even '94" seasons."

There is also concern that some trees from groves to the north were killed and will have to be replanted, he said. The loss of production from those groves will have a price impact across the United States as demand will exceed supply.

Just how much have orange prices risen?

"The wholesale prices for navel oranges are the highest I've ever heard," Shore said. He said the normal cost for a 40-pound carton ranges from $6 to $10. "Now it's up in the $20 to $27 range."

That increase has more than doubled the cost for consumers.

"We started seeing prices go up around the 28th of December, which was directly caused due to the freeze," Spezzano said. Retail lemon prices, he said, are up 40%, and avocados are up 30%.

When last month's freeze hit, most of the oranges at the market were from the San Joaquin Valley. Ventura County fruit had yet to be harvested. "Growers were waiting for the sugar content to rise," Shore said; harvesting would have started in January.

Even as the fruit of growers from other regions is harvested, prices will remain high.

"Don't expect any relief from Brazil and Florida," Spezzano said. "They grow mainly for the juice market. Basically, California provides all the U. S.'s navel oranges and lemons for the fresh market."

The freeze has not only bumped up citrus prices at the Ventura Farmers Market, but has also put a pinch on the number of farmers attending. "We lost a few local people that grow sensitive crops, like herbs and baby vegetables," Manager Karen Wetzel said. "Some hope to be back within a month."

Ironically, avocados have dropped below their normal going rate at the Farmers Market because of a glut of fruit. The avocado stems froze, causing the fruit to fall to the ground. But some of it is edible.

"There's so many avocados available right now because of all the salvage farmers are doing," she said.

Ventura County's lucrative strawberry harvest has been delayed because of frost damage, but it is not certain how that will affect prices. "Early production has been set back four to six weeks," said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. "We'll have to wait and see how many plants come back, but there's no question--short supply and high demand will mean higher prices."

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