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All is not lost for farmers

The freeze in January caused about $1.3 billion in crop losses, but those who can harvest could benefit from higher sale prices.

September 10, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Rows of shriveled avocado saplings at Richard and Mary Louise Sanchez's Ventura County ranch are testament to a cold snap that threatened to take away their livelihood.

Yet 50 feet away, workers were busy harvesting plump Haas avocados last month from larger trees that emerged unscathed from this year's deep freeze.

The trees were planted on a hillside, and their maturity and the extra elevation were just enough to save them from the damaging effects of temperatures that lingered in the mid-20s for five nights in mid-January, Mary Louise Sanchez said.

"We don't have as much fruit, but we'll probably still do OK, because it will sell at higher prices," said Sanchez, whose family has farmed Carpinteria and its surrounding valleys in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties for more than a century. "Next spring, we'll replant."

The story is much the same across the farm regions of Central and Southern California. Ranchers and farmers say the freeze that caused an estimated $1.3 billion in crop losses was brutally indiscriminate -- but also provided benefits.

Though some industry officials initially feared that the freeze had destroyed about half of the state's $1.1-billion orange crop, more recent assessments showed that citrus fared better than expected. Claire Smith, a spokeswoman for the 6,000-member Sunkist Growers cooperative, said packinghouse volume is down 35% from that of an average year.

Prices for oranges, lemons and avocados have risen, meanwhile, suggesting that those who managed to harvest fruit may end up reaping healthy returns. Gus Gunderson, director of operations at Limoneira in Santa Paula, is optimistic despite losing 15% of the company's lemon crop to the freeze.

"We are going to have a very good lemon year," Gunderson said.

Tulare County suffered the greatest dollar loss from the freeze, $418.5 million, followed by Ventura County at $280.9 million, Kern County at $179.1 million and Fresno County at $111.3 million. Citrus and avocado trees took the brunt of the damage, accounting for 73% of the state's total crop losses.

In Southern California, farmers in hard-hit Ventura County are just now taking stock of the cold snap's full impact.

Beginning the night of Jan. 12, Tony Thacher and his family labored several nights in a row to save oranges, lemons and avocados on their 75-acre ranch.

He lost 30% of his Valencia oranges and all of his avocados, but saved his high-value Pixie tangerines, Thacher said. Last month, the lemon trees were showing new growth, he said.

"There's a good crop of little green lemons right now," he said. "Hopefully, they will come back next spring."

Thacher estimated that the freeze cost the Ojai ranch $125,000 in lost income. But he didn't seek state aid that was available in the weeks after the freeze. Nor will he apply for the federal aid that will be available this fall, Thacher said.

"I'm in enough debt," he said. "We'll just lick our wounds and go on."

In other parts of Ventura County, the cold laid waste in a hit-and-miss pattern, said Rex Laird, director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. Some farmers lost this year's crop, while others were able to salvage fruit for harvest, Laird said.

"It was like a tornado going through the Midwest, where it wiped out one street and left the next one untouched," he said.

At Limoneira's orchards, workers bulldozed 75 acres of avocados, Gunderson said.

Crews pruned an additional 225 acres nearly to the stumps, he said. Recently the trees were sporting glossy new leaves.

Avocados set blooms on year-old wood, so Gunderson estimated Limoneira will lose about 4 million pounds of fruit this year and next.

"Next spring they will flower, so we won't have a crop to sell until December 2008 or January 2009," he said.

Farther west, off Highway 150 as it descends toward Carpinteria, the Sanchezes' avocado ranch sits deep in the confluence of two mountain valleys. That makes for chilly winters and presents a challenge for farmers, Richard Sanchez said.

During a winter freeze in 1990, the couple and their children spent nights tending bonfires and smudge pots. They still lost much of their crop, Sanchez said.

They learned from that experience, he said. This time, they didn't put as much effort into saving the avocados. They figured, accurately, that the higher-elevation trees would survive and that they would simply prune or replant the groves in the lower areas.

Last month, under sweltering summer skies, the couple cheerfully explained how they had "stumped" some trees to force new growth. The ones that did not make it will be replaced.

"We've got 200 trees ordered for next spring," Mary Louise Sanchez said with a grin. "We'll be back."

Like the others, the Sanchezes were hopeful that they would still make a slight profit this year. Recent freezes in Chile and Argentina, and Hurricane Dean's battering of Mexico, could translate into higher prices for their remaining avocados, Mary Louise said.

"It's all part of farming," she said.

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Frozen assets

Ranchers and farmers say January's freeze, which caused $1.3 billion in crop losses, was brutally indiscriminate.

Hardest-hit crops

Oranges (navel)...$475.4*

Oranges (Valencia)...$161.2

Avocados...$146.3

Lemons...$88.5

Lettuce...$44.6

Nursery stock...$22.1

Broccoli...$20.8

Other citrus...$19.9

Artichokes...$12.3

Strawberries...$10.7

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Value loss by county

(top 12 counties)

Tulare...$418.5*

Ventura...$280.9

Kern...$179.1

Fresno...$111.3

Riverside...$86

Imperial...$77.5

San Diego...$52

San Luis Obispo...$25.9

Santa Barbara...$20.2

Monterey...$14.3

Los Angeles...$14.2

San Bernardino...$11

* in millions

Source: County agricultural commissioners

Los Angeles Times

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