Citrus growers said Tuesday they lost at least $800 million during a recent five-day freeze, the most devastating blow to the industry in more than a decade.
The report by California Citrus Mutual is the first detailed accounting of the cold snap — originally estimated to cost nearly $1 billion — that is expected to leave 12,000 workers out of jobs and increase fruit prices.
More than 70 percent of the state’s citrus crop was hanging on the trees during the frost earlier this month, ruining most navel and Valencia oranges, nearly all of the tangerines and damaging lemon trees in the Imperial Valley, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a trade organization.
“We expect that number to grow. We’re going to find more damages along the way but some of that we won’t know until spring or even summer,” Nelsen said.
The recent freeze hit farmers harder than a three-day cold snap in 1998, which caused an estimated $700 million in losses.
While a weeklong freeze knocked out the entire citrus crop in 1990, the recent cold hit a broader swath of crops, killing avocados in the San Diego area, strawberries along the coast, and cut flowers in parts of Southern California.
Those growers are still tallying losses and some won’t know the impact until spring, but state agriculture officials said overall losses could top $1 billion.
Avocado growers saw as much as 30 percent of this year’s projected 400 million pound crop freeze and fall off the trees, according to the California Avocado Commission.
It will be several weeks before a more solid assessment can be made, but the commission said there will be enough avocados to meet demand for Super Bowl weekend. Later in the year, imports from Chile and Mexico will be brought in and prices will rise, said Mark Affleck, commission president.
Strawberries will take at least six weeks to rebound, a temporary setback to a crop that grows year-round in the state, according to the California Strawberry Commission.
State officials have stepped in to help, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asking the U.S. Small Business Administration to help growers secure loans in disaster areas. Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner declared an emergency to allow assessors as far away as Texas and Florida help with an expected load of 3,000 crop insurance claims.
Growers had expected to earn $1.5 billion dollars from fresh citrus this year, but now many are trying to salvage what they can for juice, Nelsen said.
For consumers, some of the impact won’t be felt for some time.
“There’s a $114 million loss in lemons, which means a major interruption in availability this summer,” he said.