Video: Freeze threatens citrus crops

updated 1/12/2007 7:48:28 PM ET 2007-01-13T00:48:28

A cold snap predicted in several western states this weekend is expected to lower temperatures in California to the teens, worrying farmers with a citrus crop still hanging on trees.

The cold snap was brought on by an arctic mass that will move across the region, according to the National Weather Service.

“These events are infrequent, but they do happen about every 10 to 15 years,” said Stan Wasowski, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in San Diego, where temperatures were expected to drop into the 30s.

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, growers in the middle of the citrus season are firing up huge fans to circulate warm air in the fields and are planning all-night vigils to monitor the health of nearly $1 billion worth of oranges, tangerines and lemons.

“Even a few degrees can mean the difference between complete disaster and saving your crop,” said Nick Hill, who grows oranges, tangerines and lemons on 500 acres in Dinuba.

Wind turbines help
Farmers in this mostly agricultural region of California keep a close watch on the weather and try everything to raise temperatures, even by just a few degrees.

For citrus farmers, the tried and true method for the past 40 years has been to water their land to take in sunlight during the day and run 30-foot wind machines to pull naturally rising heat back down to the orchard floor. They run them any time temperatures dip below 30 degrees. Hill worries that this time there might not be enough heat to pull back down.

A severe cold snap can destroy crops, leave hundreds of farmworkers unemployed and have long-term effects if trees are damaged. The industry took two years to recover from a 1990 freeze that lasted a week, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a 2,000-member trade organization.

This weekend’s freeze likely won’t last that long, but meteorologists have said it could be comparable to a freeze that wiped out the citrus crop in 1998. If that happens again, consumers will pay more for citrus fruit in the next few months, Nelson said.

“The citrus season usually lasts until May, but a big cold snap can cut that down to ending it in 30 days,” Nelsen said.

Trees still full
The central San Joaquin Valley, with 210,000 acres devoted to citrus, is the state’s top producer of fresh naval oranges, according to California Citrus Mutual. More than 70 percent of the region’s crop is still on the trees and workers were scrambling Thursday to pick and store as much as possible.

Orange varieties usually fare better than lemons because the sugar content lowers the freezing point.

Most crops are not in season and will be spared. Olive growers said low temperatures could cause damage to newer trees but expect the low temperatures will instead have a positive impact by killing olive fruit flies.

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