Frost Strikes California's Citrus, Avocado Crops

An unusually harsh winter frost has wiped out as much as three-quarters of California's citrus crop, and is killing off avocados and flowers as well. The financial impact on growers could be significant.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

California's orange crop has gone from Sunkist to frostbitten. Four nights of sub-freezing temperatures have destroyed as much as three quarters of the California's citrus crops. Avocados and winter strawberries are also feeling the chill, and that will ultimately blow into the nation's produce aisles.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The freeze of 2007 is likely to be remembered in California as the worst in almost 20 years. And the orange groves at the San Joaquin Valley, the temperature didn't just dip into the mid-20s over the weekend, it stayed down for eight or nine hours. Dave Kranz of the California Farm Bureau Federation says despite farmer's best efforts, they couldn't save all the fruit.

Mr. DAVE KRANZ (Spokesman, California Farm Bureau Federation): The farmers do have forest protection measures. They use wind machines and irrigation and other techniques to try to boost the temperature within the groves. But when it gets that cold for that long, farmers are pretty sure they're going to have a significant loss.

HORSLEY: California Citrus Mutual estimates that as much as 75 percent of the billion dollar crop has been destroyed. While Florida grows more juice oranges, California produces nearly all the fresh citrus sold in the U.S., so Kranz says consumers are likely to see fewer oranges and lemons in the grocery store.

Mr. KRANZ: People will notice an impact, but not right away. Because of the forecast, everybody knew that there was a cold wave coming in and farmers picked as much fruit as they could in advance of the freeze. The citrus organizations have estimated that there is roughly a seven to ten day supply in storage. It will be later this month, in other words, when consumers may start to see the impact at the grocery store.

HORSLEY: Kranz says the damage does not appear to be as long lasting as in 1990 when a weeklong freeze hit, not only that year's crop, but the fruit trees themselves. He says mature trees appear to have weathered this freeze is okay, although there maybe some damage, the vulnerable young mandarin orange trees planted in recent years to meet the growing demand for clementines.

Early season strawberries that were ready for harvest were also met by the cold. Growers are still trying to figure out whether strawberry plants suffered damage that could cause fruit shortages later in the season.

In Southern California, the costliest damage may have been to the avocado crop. San Diego County leads the nation in avocado production, and Eric Larson of the County Farm Bureau says temperatures in some growing areas fell into the teens.

Mr. ERIC LARSON (Executive Director, San Diego County Farm Bureau): Unfortunately for the avocado growers, there's not much they can do. The groves are on hilly locations. They don't have overhead sprinklers or any way to move the air to make it change, and basically what happens with the avocados, there's a very long thin stem that connects the fruit to the tree. That stem froze all the way through. And the weight of the fruit will just break it and the fruit will fall to the ground.

HORSLEY: The freeze comes just three weeks before the Super Bowl, one of the biggest days of the year for eating avocados in the form of guacamole. The timing is also bad for San Diego's $300 million flower and ornamental plant industry. Jan Berry is with the County's Flower and Plant Association.

Ms. JAN BERRY (San Diego County Flower and Plant Association): With Valentine's Day around the corner, there will be things that we can't make up. There's just not enough time to.

HORSLEY: The National Weather Service is forecasting a gradual warming trend this week, but in the citrus growing region of the Central Valley, a freeze warning remains in effect through tomorrow morning.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.