Calif. Cold Snap Threatens Orchards

An unusually cold night in California threatens citrus growers' crops. Renee Montagne talks to Jim Churchill about measures being taken to save oranges and avocados.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It is freezing here in Southern California. Overnight, temperatures plunged into the 20s and that cold front is threatening citrus and avocado orchards through Central and Southern California. Citrus alone is a $20 billion industry here. So growers are scrambling to protect their crops.

We reached one of them - Jim Churchill - who grows Pixie tangerines in the Ojai valley north of Los Angeles. He was spending the night in his orchard. And Jim Churchill, good morning. And this is probably the first of a few nights, right?

JIM CHURCHILL: Yeah. Probably tomorrow night and then again on Saturday, I think.

MONTAGNE: You also, I gather, grow avocados. So you have a couple of crops there in the orchard to protect. What are the conditions at this moment in time and what are you doing?

CHURCHILL: It got to be 29 degrees. We protect to 28. That is to say, if it's going to get to 28, we want to make it be warmer. So what we do is we have these wind machines, a 16-foot fan blade on a 40-foot tower, hooked up to a really large engine that's been modified to run on propane and we turn them on.

MONTAGNE: So there's - basically you're blowing a lot of wind to warm it up, right?

CHURCHILL: Yeah. If we're lucky there is an inversion layer with some warm air up at about 40 feet and the big fan blades will cause turbulence and bring the warm air down to the ground. And in fact, it did. We went from 29 degrees to 33 degrees when we turned on the first wind machine in about five minutes.

MONTAGNE: All right. So we all intuitively know that cold is bad for citrus, but tell us exactly what happens there that ruins the crop.

CHURCHILL: Ah. Well, it depends on how cold it gets, but for a moderate cold like this, if it were to damage the crop, then what would happen would be that the little vesicles that hold the juice inside the tangerine or the orange or whatever citrus it is, the juice inside would freeze. And when it freezes, it expands. And then it would burst the membrane of the vesicle. And then it would thaw and then all the juice would run out.

And then you'd have a dry piece of fruit, which I wouldn't be able to sell you.

MONTAGNE: Right. And which I wouldn't want to eat.

CHURCHILL: Because it wouldn't be in any good. And in 1990, Renee, it got down to 18 and that took out trees.

MONTAGNE: It actually killed the trees.

CHURCHILL: It killed young trees. It killed baby trees and it killed, actually, almost all the avocados. Or it froze them back to stubs. The older trees were able to survive but we didn't have any crop for a couple of years.

MONTAGNE: That sounds like quite a disaster for your business, for your orchard. Is this cold freeze that we're talking about shaping up to be anywhere near that bad?

CHURCHILL: Up in Central California it's called to be 22 degrees, which is really serious. I don't know what they're going to do up there and my heart goes out to them.

MONTAGNE: But for yourself, you think spending a few nights in the orchard you can, you know, keep up the heat?

CHURCHILL: Yeah. We should be OK. It's called for 28 tonight, 27 tomorrow, and I think 25 on Saturday. And 25 is serious, but we do what we can do.

MONTAGNE: And this cold freeze is set to go until this coming Monday. That's quite a few days.

CHURCHILL: Yes. I'm fortunate. I have a guy that works with us now and so we can trade off. I don't have to do it all by myself. I'm very happy for that.

MONTAGNE: Well, I hope you can get some sleep and good luck to you with protecting those Pixie tangerines.

CHURCHILL: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: That's Jim Churchill, who's spending the night in the Churchill-Brenneis Orchard, where he grows Pixie tangerines and avocados in Ojai, California. This is NPR News.

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