Citrus survives 5-day freeze

Citrus growers emerged from a five-day freeze Tuesday morning feeling relatively warm about its $2 billion crop.

According to the National Weather Service, temperatures were at or below freezing for four hours on Jan. 10 with a low of 29 and four hours on Jan. 11 with a low of 29 between 4-8 a.m. On Jan. 12, temperatures were at or below freezing for eight hours with a low of 28 degrees from 12:35-8:15 a.m. and another eight hours of the same on Jan. 13. The coldest morning was Monday, Jan. 13 when temperatures were at or below freezing for 10 hours including three hours at 27 degrees, a temperature regarded as the danger zone for any variety of citrus. On Tuesday morning, Jan. 15 freezing temperatures lasted for about 12 hours including four hours at 28 degrees with a low of 27.

Despite extended freezing temperatures on Tuesday morning, the overall temperature was up 1-2 degrees from the season-to-date lows seen on Sunday night. Temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley did drop rapidly in the early evening and growers reported starting wind protection sooner than in previous nights, cognizant of the cumulative impact of 5 consecutive nights below freeztemperatures averaging a 26 degree low in the San Joaquin Valley last night, wind machines were able to create a good inversion layer and elevate grove temperatures 3-5 degrees to above critical levels. Growers are confident that the small leap will make a big difference in the effectiveness of wind protection and anticipate minimal damage to come.

“With wind machines and water growers were able to maintain temperatures of 27-30 degrees in the traditional citrus belt [of eastern Tulare County],” said Paul Story, Director of Grower Services for Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual. “Low lying ground west of Highway 99 saw some damage in non-traditional citrus growing areas and groves without frost protection.”

Early assessments coming in from the groves indicate that there has not been measurable damage to the 63,000,000 cartons of navel oranges still on the tree. Temperatures below 32 degrees for 12 hours and below 27 degrees for four hours on Sunday night have raised concerns over damage to the remaining mandarin crop. However, inspectors are reporting only isolated areas of damage. In the San Joaquin Valley, the navel crop can withstand temperatures as low as 28 degrees. However, the less-tolerant mandarin and lemon crops, which have a cold threshold of 32 degrees, will likely see moderate damage. The full extent of damage may take weeks to become evident. Inspections will continue in the hardest hit areas in order to prevent damaged fruit from entering the marketplace.

“This year’s crop is a very mature crop which can withstand a lot more cold,” Story said. “Overall there was not a huge percentage of reported damage,” Story said. “Mandarins and murcotts were more affected because they have thin skins, are easy peel and are a smaller fruit.”

Growers were aided by moderate temperatures to-date, with the exception of the current freeze event. This gave the crop time to mature and build up strong sugar content, providing the fruit with its internal anti-freeze.

California Citrus Mutual estimates, based on grower reports, that the industry has collectively spent $23.1 million over the past five nights to protect a $2 billion crop. Growers spent a combined total of $100 million at this point last season. Due to the length of this frost event and the cost to protect the crop from damage, per carton prices may rise slightly, but the price per pound at retail should not be impacted. Consumers will not see any impact as far as quality of the fruit either. This season, we are seeing exceptionally sweet tasting fruit, which will ensure the quality of the crop remains despite this freeze event. With temperatures now on the upswing, growers are welcoming respite from the low, cold nights for the remainder of January.

Imperial County also suffered from cold weather last night. It is expected that some damage may surface as a result given that fruit in the area is not as cold tolerant as the production in the San Joaquin Valley. In Ventura, temperatures stayed at about 30-35 degrees all night and it appears producers did not have to take any precautions.

Citrus is the California’s No. 1 export and Tulare County is the state’s No. 1 citrus producing county. Tulare County is home to over 100,000 acres of citrus, 60 citrus packinghouses and four citrus juice plants. Tulare County citrus represents about $700 million annually.

California Citrus Mutual is a non-profit association of citrus growers, with approximately 2,200 members representing 60% of California’s 273,000-acre, $2 billion citrus industry. The mission of California Citrus Mutual is to inform, educate, and advocate on behalf of growers to promote a healthy, viable and sustainable California citrus industry. The Exeter, California-based organization was founded in 1977.

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