Citrus growers find freeze losses vary significantly


Issue Date: January 8, 2014
By Cecilia Parsons

Here, there and everywhere: That's the general consensus about citrus fruit damage from the December freeze.

"We don't have exact percentages. We do know that damage varies significantly from area to area," said Alyssa Houtby of California Citrus Mutual.

The citrus grower organization has been gathering fruit damage information from the field as county agricultural inspectors continue to cut fruit that arrives in San Joaquin Valley packinghouses.

Inspectors cut open samples of fruit to determine if ice has formed inside the juice sacs, causing them to burst. When the ice thaws, the fruit begins to dry out.

The navel orange crop is about 25 percent harvested, Houtby said, with the current estimate that 80 percent will be sold fresh and 20 percent will be directed to juice. Typically, less than 10 percent of the navel crop is juiced.

The preharvest forecast estimated 85 million cartons of citrus would be shipped from the San Joaquin Valley.

Al Bates, general manager of Exeter-based Sun Pacific, said there is a very broad range of freeze damage and both the navel and seedless mandarin crops will be smaller than predicted.

"We have 90 percent damage in some fields, and in others found 100 percent shipping-quality fruit that is going to Australia, China and Japan," Bates said.

This freeze was unusual, he noted, because fruit from traditionally colder areas had sometimes been unharmed while more damage had been found in typically warmer growing areas.

Clementines and Murcotts, varieties of seedless mandarins, did suffer a fair amount of damage, he said, but it is too early to assign a percentage loss figure.

"We know it's out there, but we're still making that determination," Bates said.

Prices for citrus will rise because the volume will be down, he predicted, and harvests will also wrap up earlier. Bates said packers will be using density-sorting equipment to kick out freeze-damaged fruit that has dried inside.

County inspectors in the main San Joaquin Valley citrus areas have been busy cutting fruit to determine damage and divert damaged fruit for processing.

Tulare County inspector Tom Tucker said the freeze damage depends on location. Citrus in warmer locations protected with water and wind machines came through with minimal damage, he said, while colder areas, unprotected trees, more vulnerable varieties and smaller-sized fruit took a hit when temperatures plunged into the 20s beginning Dec. 4.

California Citrus Mutual said growers spent almost $23 million in December running water and wind machines to try to protect their crops.

Tucker said inspectors will be cutting fruit throughout the harvest season and that damage figures won't be determined for several weeks. Not enough fruit has been harvested since the freeze to provide those numbers, he added.

Inspectors pay particular attention to fruit destined for export sale, due to longer transport times and tighter requirements for shipping. A center cut is taken on navel samples and pulled flat to see if juice is leaking from the sacs. Blossom, stem ends and centers are cut in mandarins and lemons, so four sections can be assessed for damage.

Prior to the freeze, about 15 percent of California navels had been harvested, Houtby said, and 20 percent of the mandarin crop had been harvested.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture reported that all counties would select and hold samples of all fruit harvested.

Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo said mandarin and lemon damage in his county surpassed navel orange damage. At least a quarter of the mandarin crop suffered damage, he said, while 15 percent to 20 percent of midseason navels were affected. Late-variety navel damage remains unknown, he added.

"The packing sheds are doing a good job deciding which blocks to pick. They are cutting and culling in the field, sending it straight to juice," Arroyo said. "Overall, we've had only a couple of red-tagged loads and with our volume, that is nothing."

Scotti Walker of the Fresno County agricultural commissioner's office said last week that more than 21,000 40-pound cartons of citrus fruit had been deemed unsaleable at county packinghouses. Smaller navels and mandarins made up the majority of rejections.

"We're finding more damaged fruit every day," Walker said, adding that continued warm and dry weather since the freeze had hastened deterioration of affected fruit.

San Joaquin Valley lemons had less damage, Houtby said.

Terra Bella-area lemon grower John Konda said samples from his block west of Porterville showed less than 20 percent damage. Half of the block of 9-year-old trees had been harvested earlier, and he was able to direct all his effort to the remaining fruit. Outside of some ice markings, the fruit will be harvested and sold, Konda said.

Farmers said young trees unprotected with water or wind machines have foliage that is severely burned back by frost. New growth on older trees was also burned. Damage to branches may mean lower production next year, a situation that occurred after the severe frost of December 1990 that wiped out the entire crop.

The December 2013 freeze was the second of the year. Last January, temperatures dropped into the 20s, causing damage to navel oranges and mandarins. In 2007, 60 percent of the navel orange crop was lost to freeze damage.

(Cecilia Parsons is a reporter in Ducor. She may be contacted at ceciliaparsons8@gmail.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.