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$1.1-billion Orange Crop Is Severely Damaged

Freeze will mean 'much higher prices' for many vegetables and fruits.

Losses Span The State

January 16, 2007|Sharon Bernstein, David Pierson and Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writers

As much as 70% of oranges still on California trees may have been destroyed by record cold temperatures across the state, officials and farmers said Monday.

It will take days to make a full assessment of the losses to the $1.1-billion orange crop. But the state's top agriculture official said Monday that damage to fruit and vegetable crops overall will be greater and more widespread than in the devastating freeze of 1998, which destroyed $700 million worth of produce across California.

"This cold incident will surpass the 1998-99 freeze," said A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Losses, although greatest in the San Joaquin Valley, seem to be spread through many parts of the state that typically have been immune to freezes, he said, "from San Diego ... to the coast."

In addition to citrus fruits, growers are reporting damage to other crops, including leafy greens, avocados, strawberries and blueberries, said Kawamura, who has spent the last few days visiting farms from Fresno to Ventura.

Some farmers are reporting damage to 100% of their crops, and many others say more than half their produce is destroyed, he said.

The orange crop was particularly hard-hit because growers had picked only 30% of the state's 193,000 acres of orange groves before the freeze.

Consumers could feel the effects in higher costs, said Toni Spigelmyer, spokeswoman for Sysco Corp., the nation's largest food service distributor.

"We've lost about 50% of the orange crops, had significant losses on lemons and it's going to have an effect on vegetables," Spigelmyer said. "Basically, what we're going to see is a tighter supply and much higher prices."

The cold snap has been particularly damaging because it has lasted twice as long as normal winter blasts and has plunged temperatures below 25, essentially making nighttime warming efforts by farmers futile.

"The trees are looking sad," said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a growers association. "They're normally a vibrant green color with these bright orange dots all over them. Now the leaves are curling and they're turning yellow. They're really stressed."

Citrus farming employs 12,500 people in California, not including those who pack the fruit and drive the delivery trucks. Even the companies that make the boxes in which the fruit is shipped will have a bad year, he said.

Claire Smith, spokeswoman for the 6,000-member Sunkist Growers cooperative, said that up to 70% of the navel oranges still on its members' California trees have been damaged. That amounts to about half of the state's overall navel crop and would be worth a little more than $400 million.

It remains unclear whether the trees are damaged; if they are, growers' problems would continue next season.

As the state recorded another morning of record lows Monday, farmers worked to assess the damage, hopeful that rising temperatures predicted for today would help preserve surviving crops.

"We will be lucky to salvage a quarter to a third of what was left. It is a bleak situation," said Charles Sheldon, who had picked a little less than a third of his 900-acre citrus orchard near Lindsay when the temperatures plunged.

On Monday he started juicing a portion of the crop he already determined would be too damaged to sell as fresh fruit. The damage, he said, had been random, as parts of the orchard survived one night only to be struck the next.

Avocado farmers say last weekend was the most damaging in 16 years, since what they called the Big Freeze of 1990 wiped out crops.

Guy Witney of the California Avocado Commission said the frost could not have come at a worse time for avocado farmers.

Only 5% of the $350-million crop was picked before this weekend, Witney said, so most of the fruit was still on the trees and vulnerable to the cold. Hardest hit, he said, were the Ventura County regions of Santa Paula Canyon, Ojai and Fillmore.

Santa Paula Canyon avocado farmer Richard Pidduck said the stems on his avocados have already started turning brown, a sure sign of failure. When the fruit is cut open, dark veins running through it show the first signs of decay.

"My avocado crop was a total loss," Pidduck said. "That is several hundred thousands dollars lost from what is just a small family farm," Pidduck said.

Damage to Ventura County's $1.2-billion agricultural industry was extensive, said Earl McPhail, the county's agricultural commissioner. Besides wiping out citrus and avocado groves, the frigid temperatures damaged the winter strawberry crop just as it was going to harvest, he said.

McPhail said he would not have a dollar estimate on the crop losses for several days. But based on what he saw early Monday as he toured ranches with Kawamura, he said it could exceed the $74.3 million lost by the county's farmers in the 1998 freeze.

McPhail said he would ask Sheriff Bob Brooks to declare a local disaster today, a first step in helping farmers qualify for low-interest loans from the federal government.

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