California citrus farmers battle record cold

Weather | Angela Lu

California citrus farmers battle record cold

Farm worker Javier Hernandez harvesting oranges in a grove to get ahead of the expected hard freeze.
Associated Press/Photo by The Fresno Bee, Craig Kohlruss

Californians used to wearing short sleeves and flip flops through the winter months struggled to adapt this week to record cold that threatens to upset more than just their wardrobes.

Citrus farmers in the “Food Basket of the World” especially are concerned about the plummeting mercury as they fight to protect about $1.5 billion worth of fruit.

About 75 percent of the citrus crop statewide remained on the trees as Monday night temperatures dropped to 21 degrees in the San Joaquin Valley. The unusual cold has gripped the West Coast for nearly a week.

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Prolonged temperatures in the mid-20's or below can damage delicate oranges, tangerines, lemons and limes.  California produces 33 percent of the nation’s citrus crops. 

"I think mandarin growers are going to see a range of significant damage, enough that they will have to separate their crops," said Paul Story of California Citrus Mutual, an association of the state's 3,900 citrus growers. 

Mandarins are more susceptible to cold than other citrus and start to freeze at about 32 degrees, Story said. Because many mandarin trees were planted in recent years as the fruit's popularity soared, they are grown in colder areas outside the traditional citrus belt.

Other citrus crops have seen little or minimal damage so far, Story said. This year's high sugar content in oranges helped protect them because sugar inhibits freezing.

In Southern California, strong winds kept crops out of danger, stopping the cold from settling. On Monday morning, temperatures in downtown Los Angeles plummeted to 34 degrees, breaking the previous record of 36 degrees set on Jan. 14, 2007.

Over the weekend, growers deployed wind machines to keep the warm air closer to the ground and irrigation to raise the temperature in the groves. Rows farthest away from the protection systems could be damaged, Story said. And farmers who do not have wind machines could lose crops.

Robert LoBue, general manager or LoBue Farms, said wind machines were critical in his groves, but saving the crop doesn't come cheap. LoBue, who grows 1,000 acres of citrus, including mandarins, runs one wind machine for every 10 acres and has to employ a crew to man them.

"We're very diligent, we run the wind and water all night," LoBue said, "But we're spending thousands of dollars to protect these crops."

Citrus Mutual said farmers in San Joaquin Valley spent $11.4 million in frost protection between Thursday and Saturday.

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