California Central Valley citrus growers dodged a frozen bullet just before Christmas after the National Weather Service predicted temperatures into the low 20's in parts of the state’s citrus belt.
Santa smiled on citrus growers as temperatures instead dipped to 26 degrees for a shorter duration than earlier forecasted. Nevertheless, citrus growers have spent more than $20 million in frost protection measures to date this season to protect the fresh market crop in Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties.
California’s citrus crop is valued at over $3 billion, of which about 80 percent is grown in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
California Citrus Mutual Spokesperson Alyssa Houtby said the cold temperatures were a concern, but in the end no damage was expected from the freezing temperatures a few days before Christmas.
Historically, this is the time of year when Central Valley citrus farmers can expect significant cold temperatures that can decimate crops and kill trees. Growers still talk about epic freezes of 1990, 1998 and 2006 when hundreds of millions of dollars in damage occurred from prolonged freezing temperatures. The most recent cold snap did none of this.
Houtby said growers ran wind machines and irrigation. A three-degree bump in temperatures across the grove can be achieved using these methods, enough to ward off freeze damage in this case, Houtby said.
Navel orange growers operated wind machines for six to eight hours the nights of Dec. 21-22. Some Mandarin growers used wind machines to protect the thinner-skinned fruit for about 10 hours. Though temperatures were reported between 29 and 31 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours frost-protection efforts were largely effective, she said.
It costs about $22 per hour to run one wind machine which can protect up to 10 acres.
About one-fourth of California’s citrus crop was harvested before Christmas. Harvest season runs through mid-June.
Notwithstanding the recent freezing temperatures, this season’s mild conditions have favored good fruit quality by helping to “harden off” trees to make them less prone to fruit drop tied to the cold.