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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Tense Night for Citrus Farmers as Cold Snap Hits

Agriculture: With freezing temperatures expected, avocados are also in danger. But growers are optimistic crops will escape damage.

January 17, 2001|TINA DIRMANN and HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With forecasters expecting temperatures to plunge below the freezing point Tuesday night and this morning, farmers spent the day preparing to stay awake until morning to keep icy weather from devastating avocado and citrus crops.

The National Weather Service issued a one-day freeze warning, effective until 8 a.m. today. Temperatures were supposed to fall to as low as 30 degrees across the county's interior valley.

The news sent growers scrambling Tuesday to prepare giant wind machines designed to spread enough warm air over trees and vines to keep ice off tender citrus and avocados.

Area farmers who are accustomed to the damage cold air can bring tried to stay optimistic, noting that even if temperatures dip below freezing, they aren't expected to stay there long enough to cause real damage. Forecasters say the freeze could linger about two hours or more.

But county farmers do take freeze warnings seriously, because many remember vividly the 1998 freeze that destroyed more than $74.3 million in crops, leaving the county one of 18 to be declared a disaster area by the state.

Although one farmer said he saw temperatures dip to 28 degrees at about 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, farmers don't think the weather this week will get as bad as in 1998. Bob Pinkerton, president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau and an avocado and lemon grower near Santa Paula, said the early Tuesday freeze caused no damage aside from costing him sleep.

He stayed up all night Monday watching his tender crops. As temperatures fell, he flipped on one of 15 wind machines that snatched warmer air from above the crops and forced it to the ground.

"Right now I just want to eat dinner and go to bed before I have to get up and go for it all over again," Pinkerton said late Tuesday afternoon. "And tonight is going to be real screwy--up-and-down temps, above and below freezing all night. It'll be turn off the wind machine, turn it on, turn it off, yee-haw, here we go!"

But farmers say losing sleep is better than the devastation that some freezes have brought. A 1990 freeze caused $100 million in damage and led to a disaster-area designation for Ventura County, allowing farmers to get federal emergency loans.

A December 1987 frost destroyed $51.4 million in crops, and four consecutive nights of below-freezing temperatures in December 1998 devastated the county's lemon, orange and avocado crops.

That kind of history, combined with 100 years of family farming experience, causes Link Leavens to live his life around thermometers.

All vehicles driven by employees of Leavens Fairview Ranch in Moorpark have temperature gauges, and foot-tall thermometers dot the rows of lemon trees and avocado vines at the company's 500-acre main base of operations.

In fact, inside the foreman's house in Moorpark, an alarm clock linked to a thermometer will start buzzing loudly if the temperature dips below a certain level. Tuesday night, the alarm was set for 31 degrees.

"It's not projected to be so cold that the wind machines can't take care of it, but it is a heavy frost that's coming," said Leavens, the farm's general manager. "But we watch those gauges to see if it gets too low, and we pray."

Along with constantly monitoring thermometers and talking about the weather with grove employees, Leavens said he tells foremen to sleep during the day and prepare for alarms in the middle of the night.

The family has 800 acres throughout the county with the largest operation in Moorpark, followed by groves in Ventura and Santa Paula.

Avocados and lemons are high on the list of produce susceptible to damage, according to Terry Schaeffer, a retired federal meteorologist who is on contract to provide forecasts for the Ventura County Farm Bureau. Twice daily, seven days a week, Schaeffer inputs forecasts into a computer database accessed by farmers throughout the county. "It's a garden-variety thing we have to do most winters," Schaeffer said of crop protection.

Local farmers have already suffered a loss this year. Two weeks ago, farm officials estimated that between 5% and 15% of the county's avocado and lemon crops were damaged by hot Santa Ana winds that bruised fruit and knocked it from trees. Now, it's the cold weather's turn to cause concern.

Overnight temperatures are expected to warm up the rest of the week, hovering around the low 40s Wednesday and Thursday night, with highs reaching the mid-60s. Friday will bring some clouds, but temperatures will linger between lows of about 40 to highs in the 60s, according to the National Weather Service.

*

Dirmann is a Times staff writer, and Wolcott is a correspondent.

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