Farmers assess impacts of December freeze
By Kate Campbell
Richard Bramer II, an inspector with the Tulare County agricultural commissioner’s office, surveys navel oranges for freeze damage in a grove near the Porterville airport.
Early signs of freeze damage to oranges include wetness between fruit membranes when fruit is cut open. This orange showed no internal damage despite some ice marking on the peel.
Crop damage from the string of blisteringly cold nights at the beginning of December continues to be assessed, and agricultural commissioners throughout the state say it will be weeks before the extent of losses is known. Growers note the cold hit early in the season, when about 75 percent of the state's citrus crop was still on trees.
In some areas of Tulare County, all fruit in mandarin groves was described as "toast," whereas in many navel orange groves, damage appeared more limited. The variability of crop loss reflected factors such as farm location, frost protection methods used, citrus variety and crop maturity.
"We put in tough nights for more than a week or so, with temperatures dropping below 25, and that's true for growing areas all over the valley," said citrus grower Greg Kirkpatrick of Exeter, whose family grows citron, Kaffir limes, lemons and tangelos.
"I'm sure there's damage to our lemons because they are so frost-sensitive and there's undoubtedly significant damage to lemons throughout the citrus belt," Kirkpatrick said. "Fortunately, our Satsuma mandarins were harvested before the freeze. Our late varieties—Shasta and Gold Nugget—didn't have enough sugar to withstand the freeze. We still need to assess the damage, but it may be quite a lot."
Tulare County officials agreed that mandarins probably didn't withstand the freeze very well.
"We don't have official numbers yet, percent of damage or value of crop loss," said Tom Tucker, Tulare County assistant agricultural commissioner. "We're still out cutting in the groves. Unfortunately, damage is across the board. There are several fields, especially navels with high sugar, that will show a percentage of damage. In some cases, damage is relatively minor."
He said other groves are showing almost 100 percent loss, especially mandarins.
Citrus has been grown in the San Joaquin Valley for more than 100 years. The on-farm value of California-grown citrus fruit in 2012-13 totaled $1.5 billion.
New citrus varieties that are more cold-tolerant may play a role in limiting damage, but experts say not entirely.
"We just got through cutting in a mandarin field where essentially every piece of fruit was damaged," Tucker said. "There's freeze damage up and down the county."
Tulare County produces about a third of the state's citrus crop, and market analysts say the losses could translate into higher citrus prices for shoppers.
In a letter to citrus packers last week, Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita said county agricultural commissioners were requesting that the state's 81 packinghouses voluntarily wait 48 hours before shipping fruit to allow time for quality inspections.
The protocol was developed in collaboration with growers and packers based on previous freezes, to ensure the quality of fruit shipped and to maintain an orderly market.
"All we have right now is speculation on the extent of damage in the San Joaquin Valley and we hate to comment until we know more," said Alyssa Houtby, California Citrus Mutual public affairs director. "Growers and packers are working together to ensure the integrity of our citrus products."
In Imperial County where desert citrus was maturing, crops came through the early cold spell well, according to grower Mark McBroom.
"We have no damage to the fruit to speak of and very little leaf burn," McBroom said. "We're south of the Salton Sea and that seems to be where the jet stream pushing the cold cut off. We are extremely fortunate."
The same can't be said for his growing operations in Riverside County, McBroom said, noting that in the Coachella Valley temperatures dipped much colder than in the Imperial Valley.
McBroom, who is a newly elected California Farm Bureau Federation director, described "significant damage" to peppers and other young row crops, and also some damage in citrus areas, but said the extent of the damage remains unknown.
"Vegetables in our Imperial growing area, lettuces mostly, may experience some blistering," he said. "But that damage can be peeled away as the crop matures and then used for market."
In the coastal growing areas where citrus and avocados are major crops, farmers said they think they "dodged a bullet," although the unusually early cold spell was followed by Santa Ana winds, which blew fruit from trees.
"We know we have some damage, and we're assessing our plantings in Monterey County," said Ventura County-based citrus grower David Schwabauer, who said temperatures in Monterey County dropped to 23 degrees for long durations.
"In Ventura County, we were on the edge, but temperatures dropped low enough to cause damage to the mandarin crop in the Ojai Valley, for example," he said. "We think we're fortunate and didn't sustain much damage, but everybody's still assessing."
Tim Spann of the California Avocado Commission said the growers he had spoken to did not report widespread damage.
"There is some damage in isolated cold spots," Spann said. "One grower told me that where he has the most damage is in an area that was hit by a freeze last year, so there's no crop left on the tree now. Basically, he lost it all last year."
Though he said the majority of the crop survived the early December cold, Spann noted that winter would not even officially begin until this weekend.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.