California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in ten counties, where prolonged cold has decimated the state's citrus crop. Schwarzenegger is urging the federal government to assist farmers. Farm losses are likely to reach $1 billion, making this the state's costliest freeze in more than two decades. The freeze could be expensive for shoppers as well; higher prices are expected for oranges, lemons and avocados.
Once a week, the fruits of California's fertile San Joaquin Valley are trucked 200 miles to Los Angeles for the Culver City Farmers Market. Sean Rosendahl was there Tuesday with a load of fresh fruit from Arnett Farms in Fresno — lemons, grapefruits, tangerines and various types of oranges.
By this time next week, Rosendahl's farm stand won't be nearly as full. Sub-freezing temperatures over the weekend destroyed as much as three-quarters of the citrus crop in California. The farmers saw it coming and tried to save as much as they could.
"We had been picking from sunup to sundown," Rosendahl said. "And even into the evening sometime. As long as our guys could [stand] picking out there. And we tried to pick as fast as we can to get stuff stored away."
Still, Rosendahl says, harvesters managed to save only a fraction of the fruit. And even though they tried raising the temperature in the orchards with fans and irrigation water, it was no match for the bone-chilling cold.
Ordinarily, California supplies 95 percent of the oranges and lemons sold fresh in supermarkets. Authorities say some of that fruit will still be available. But as Oliver Garner warned shoppers at the Farmers' Market, it's going to cost them.
"Looks like prices are going to be going up here next week," Garner said. "We've been trying to warn a lot of our customers. The main reason we haven't brought our price up is because it kind of scares people when they spent $6 for ten pounds and now they're paying $10 for ten pounds."
The bitter-cold temperatures stretched all the way into Southern California, where the cold nipped strawberries, cut flowers and some avocados. Al Stehly manages about 500 acres of avocado groves in San Diego County. He was able to run water around some of the trees, raising the temperature by a few degrees.
"It helped a lot," he said. "We don't have enough water capacity to water all the trees at once. So we kind of pick our battles and the areas where we're going to irrigate — 200 feet away where we didn't irrigate, we've got damage. And where we irrigated, we've got less damage. So it did help."
Forecasters predict a gradual warming trend in the next few days, but the farmers' troubles are not over. Stehly says some avocados that survived the freeze may still be hanging by frozen stems.
"The clock is ticking on the avocados," Stehly said. "That fruit will drop in about ten days if we don't harvest it right away."
The freeze may have destroyed as much as 20 percent of the avocado crop, but the state's Avocado Commission says there will still be plenty of fruit to fill the nation's guacamole bowls on Super Bowl Sunday.
One Central Valley farmer adds that cold weather is actually beneficial for some varieties of peaches, plums and nectarines. And that could be good news for the summer harvest.