Citrus groves near Orange Cove Calif

Citrus groves near Orange Cove, Calif. ripen under an autumn sun.

More than $32 million spent to protect citrus from freeze

National Weather Service says San Joaquin Valley's early December hard freeze is essentially over Citrus growers start damage survey Frost protection costs exceed $32 million   

More than $32 million was spent by San Joaquin Valley citrus growers to protect citrus crops from freezing temperatures the first two weeks of December.

While nighttime lows continue to moderate, the industry will not know the true cost of the freeze for weeks, or perhaps months as fruit will continue to be harvested into spring.

Some isolated cold spots persist, but overall the coldest temperatures appear to be over, according to the National Weather Service.

Generally, grove temperatures held at about 30 degrees with wind protection throughout most of the San Joaquin Valley into the morning of Dec. 11. However, after seven consecutive nights of overnight temperatures in the upper teens and low 20s, damage is expected, according to the California Citrus Mutual.

“Although temperatures are now on the upswing, the compound effect of a seven-day freeze event has made the fruit more susceptible to damage at higher temperature points,” said CCM President Joel Nelsen. “There is no doubt that damage has occurred across the citrus belt.  For some, the damage is major, for others the damage is manageable.  It just depends upon location and the variety.”

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A series of meetings by industry representatives, growers, and regulatory personnel took place yesterday to determine the scope of the damage and how to avoid shipping damaged fruit into the market place.

“In the past decade the industry has made significant advances in technology at the packinghouse,” said Kevin Severns, Citrus Mutual board chairman and general manager of Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association. “We can now see, literally, what damage exists internally in each piece of fruit. This technology has cost most packinghouses hundreds of thousands of dollars, which will reap dividends this year.”

Nevertheless, damage assessment can be an arduous task. Starting in the field, extreme and identifiable damaged fruit will be eliminated from the fresh market and directly shipped to the juice plant. For California citrus, juice plants are, by design, a salvage operation for lower quality fruit. “Sending fruit to the juice plant is certainly not ideal for growers from a revenue perspective,” says Nelsen. “Generally speaking, the return for juiced fruit is only sufficient to cover harvesting costs.”

A massive amount of field inspections are underway to determine the extent of damage and how much fruit will be redirected to the juice plant.

The process begins by identifying the areas of highest concern - specifically in known cold, unprotected areas. County inspection teams will then work their way through the interior of the grove where frost protection is greater, until zero damage is identified. This must be done on over 200,000 acres between Kern, Tulare, and Fresno counties to eliminate the bulk of the damage before harvesting for the fresh market.

The industry collectively agreed on Dec. 10, as a precautionary effort, to wait 48 hours to pack fruit harvested on or after Dec. 11, to allow state and county inspectors ample time to conduct further inspections for damage at each of the 81 packinghouses in the Central Valley.

“The citrus industry created this partnership with the commissioners several years ago,” said Severns. “A two-day wait period for packing will be costly to the industry, but it is a small price to pay to guarantee a quality product reaches the market. Sustaining our reputation as the top producer in the Country of fresh citrus is something the California citrus industry will not sacrifice.”

The voluntary wait period will not create any delays in availability to the market place. Packinghouses estimate that enough fruit was harvested prior to the freeze to sustain market supply through the holidays.

California $1.5 billion citrus industry produces 85 percent of the nation's fresh citrus supply year-round. The industry creates approximately 12,000 direct jobs, and another 10,000 in support industries, generating $1.5 million in economic activity statewide.