January freeze: agriculture’s worst enemy, best friend

An old saying references ‘thick-skinned people,’ those who handle controversy fairly well and allow any criticism of their beliefs to simply ‘roll off their backs.’  

Thick skin came to the forefront during a five-day stretch of sub-freezing winter temperatures in mid January in the West. Temps fell into the mid 20s, even lower in some isolated areas. Temperatures dropped like a piano falling from atop a skyscraper and shattering into thousands of pieces on the concrete sidewalk below.

Western agriculture was impacted by the extreme winter chill, especially citrus and winter vegetables. Thicker-skinned (peel) Navel oranges escaped the brunt of the damage as the cold, so to speak, rolled off the back of the fruit. Thinner-skinned mandarin citrus was harder hit by the cold in some areas.

According to California Citrus Mutual, citrus growers spent about $30 million protecting the remaining citrus crop on the trees. This is an incredible amount of money for crop preservation. Yet it is a much smaller amount than the cost of losing an entire crop. Veteran citrus growers will never forget the extreme freeze in 1990 which wiped out the entire citrus crop on trees.

Meteorologists warned Western citrus and winter vegetable growers a week in advance of the impending sub-freezing temperatures. In response, producers pumped irrigation water into orchards and fields, plus turned on wind machines as the cold front took dead aim.

It appears that winter vegetable growers in Southern California and Arizona took the brunt of the hit. Sensitive iceberg and romaine lettuce plants were damaged the most by below-freezing temperatures.

This journalist walked through a winter lettuce field in Yuma, Ariz., after the worst of the nighttime freezes and found leaves with blistering, epidermal peeling, and leaf burn. Due to the freeze, winter vegetable supplies will be lower this winter and spring. Consumer prices have already increased.

The damage could have been much worse if temperatures had dipped another degree or two.

The cold-weather experience serves as a reminder to look for the good when extreme events occur.

Western nut growers, for example, relish a good freezing spell to increase chilling hours during the tree’s winter dormancy. Chilling hours are critical to help set tree development plus yield and quality for the next crop.

Another good is the realization of the major advances in science which continue to benefit all businesses, including agriculture. Again, the citrus and vegetable industries had a week’s warning to prepare for the cold snap. This speaks volumes to the well-spent dollars in meteorology to benefit all citizens.

Another good are the many scientific strides achieved by plant breeders and seed companies who work to improve the heat and cold tolerance of plants. These accomplishments have blown the doors off the hinges to allow food and fiber producers to grow crops in areas once deemed incapable of food production.

This breakthrough alone will help agriculture produce more food with less land and water for a burgeoning world population expected to achieve 9 billion people by 2050.

In freaky events, like weather extremes, it’s always good to remember the good things which can occur despite adversity.

[email protected]

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.