Frost war in California citrus this season

It was just 30 minutes out of what seemed like a winter-long battle against crop robbing frost, but Central California citrus producer Nick Hill went on an emotional roller coaster ride during that half hour that would rival the biggest coaster at Magic Mountain.

For seven straight days Hill, partner in Greenleaf Farms, Dinuba, Calif., had fought bitter cold nighttime temperatures that had dipped into the upper teens. He was standing in a “colder” block of navels, cutting fruit looking for signs of damage.

“I’m surprised,” he said after cutting two or three. He found no damage. However, he must wait at least another five to seven days before deciding if the fruit is suitable to market fresh or go to a juice plant. Assuming there were no more frosty nights and he knew that would not be the case.

“Each night there is a little more frost and maybe a little more damage,” he cautioned.

Nevertheless, Hill was one of the lucky few seven days into the crisis. He believes when the severe frost threat passes, he would have undamaged fruit from the 500 acres of lemons, tangelos and Navel oranges he farms in what is referred to as the “citrus banana belt” in Central California These are areas abutting the Sierra Nevada where inversions and cloud cover are more likely to help ward off frost.

His crop had not escaped damage; however, he was confident he would have harvestable navels and maybe tangelos/mineolas. He hoped by the time the weather warms, he would be a bit better off than many of his fellow California Citrus Mutual members who have already called in picking crews to gather oranges for the juice market. Some of them had lost all their crops in the first two or three days of the arctic cold front that hit on Jan. 12.

Weather notice

He also counted himself lucky because 50 percent of his lemons were harvested before the frost. “There was a lot of frantic picking a week before the arctic air moved in because everyone knew about a week ahead it was coming,” he noted. “More would have come off, but there was an obvious labor issue trying to get fruit off in a week.”

While cutting the navels, a phone call comes from one of his employees. Hill directs him to a block of citrus for an inspection. Hill thinks it may still contain good fruit.

More cutting and explaining the nuisances of frosts and what his plans were from that Thursday forward; more nights of protecting fruit, trees and next year’s fruit buds.

Another phone call comes in.

During his farming career, the Fresno State graduate who grew up in the Reedley-Dinuba area, once lost an entire plum crop in a 15-minute hail storm. He lost part of his very high priced almond crop last year to frost. He went through the 1998 and 1990 citrus frosts. He understands clearly that adversity is part of his chosen profession.

He also is in the overwhelming majority of citrus growers who have crop insurance. “We learned our lesson in 1990,” Hill said. Ten percent had crop insurance then. Ninety percent bought it on this year’s. Hill invested in more expensive, but better coverage catastrophic insurance which could pay $1,500 per acre or more for losses. His cultural costs are about $2,000 per acre.

He won’t have to lay off employees and will live through the ’07 frost to farm again. He is among the better off this year, regardless what happens over the next few weeks.

No more propane

Yet, when he hung up from the very brief phone call, there was disappointment on the farmer’s face. The call was from his propane distributor. There would be no propane deliveries to replenish the fuel supply for 60 percent of his wind machines. He had already throttled back several machines the night before to conserve low fuel supplies. He was facing the next week of forecast temperatures in the low 20s with no wind machines to augment protection from irrigation water. Propane suppliers were telling growers it may be Monday or later before they could expect propane; three days away. The war could be over in three days with the forecast of more arctic cold air before the third day.

Sure, there would be good income in anything Hill can save. However, just as important would be winning the battle with the cold and giving consumers good citrus to enjoy. He had somewhat controlled his own destiny before the propane distributor called. Now the battle was almost taken out of his hands. He had to come up with a new frost control strategy to conserve what fuel he had for what fruit he deemed salvageable.

“That is the shame of it all. Fruit quality was excellent. Navel sizes may have been small this year, but the fruit quality was one of the best we have produced. Sugars were excellent,” Hill said. The crop overall was down in tonnage, but Hill was confident final shipments would be up due to the good quality. That is before the mid-January Siberian Express roared through the state. Experts figured 75 percent of the navel crop was on the trees when the frost hit Jan. 12. Half of that is gone.

Hill knows his good fortune had something to do with his banana belt location. “Temperatures in groves up against the foothills can be as high as 35 or 36 degrees when it is 27 degrees in areas down slope from the foothills,” he said.

Protection works

He also knows his frost protection efforts work. Cove Avenue cuts through this Reedley area groves. “I can drive down Cove and it will be 22 or 23 degrees and turn into an orchard where water and wind machines are running and it will be 27, 28 or 29 degrees,” he said.

There is no good time for a hard freeze, but timing was a little better this time than the last two. The 1998 and 1990 freezes came around Christmas. Fruit sugars then were lower than now (the more sugar, the less fruit damage); fruit rind and the trees themselves are more hardened this year than when the Yuletide frosts hit.

“Each frost is different. We were in a little better shape this time around,” said Hill.

“I lost a 40-acre block of Valencias in 1990 from frost damage to the trees,” he recalled. He does not expect tree damage now, although he is concerned about 300 acres of young trees he just planted in the Dinuba area where he has been running water 24/7 since the frost hit.

“Unfortunately, we do not have wind machines up there yet. Hopefully, they will be okay. They hardened like the older trees from the cold we had this winter before the arctic air hit.”

When Hills inspects a block for damage, he’ll slice open as many as 40 pieces of fruit, noting the location of each piece. The closer to wine machines or other frost protection measures, the more likely the fruit will be good. He looks for signs of fruit becoming mush next to the rind.

He hasn’t harvested the 50 percent of his lemons he knows he has lost. Normally he would drop that crop on the ground or sell for juice. Lemon juice prices are not worth harvesting the lemons. He, had planned on hedging lemons after harvest, therefore, he will drop the fruit when he hedges.

Cleanup costs

He knows he will have to hire crews to drop damaged oranges or harvest for juice. It costs about $25 per bin to harvest good fruit. “We started checking on prices to take off damaged fruit and they are quoting $23 to $24 per bin,” He figures tangelos are averaging 40 bins per acre; navels 45 to 50 bins. This is not covered by insurance.

It will be a week or more after the last frost before Hill will make decisions on harvesting for juice or for fresh market. Neither he nor most of his peers are in a hurry.

“It is critical that we do not pick bad fruit and put it on the market. That hurt us after the 1998 freeze. It took the industry a long time to regain consumer confidence,” he added. Some of that fruit slipped into the market accidentally by not waiting long enough for damage to show up. Other damaged fruit made it to market by greedy packinghouses looking to capitalize on a high priced market.

“I think everyone in the industry is committed to keeping bad fruit off the market. There are packinghouses which shipped early in 1998 who wish they hadn’t,” said Hill.

Once the danger of frost is gone, Hill will determine which fruit will go to fresh market. Last frost he taped off good and bad blocks. In 1998 fruit on half the 14-foot tall mineolas was good. He instructed crews to pick fruit only above shoulder height.

“I don’t think it is economically viable to pick only good fruit from inside the trees and leave the rest,” he said.

Hill is optimistic he will still have marketable fruit, even with the propane crisis at hand.

Workers impacted

The industry is now focused on coming up with a crop damage estimate to get aid to financially strapped growers, but more important Hill wants to make sure workers are protected financially. “In the last freeze, the unemployment rate in Lindsay, Calif., was 98 percent. These frosts are so devastating to farm towns,” he said.

An estimated 5,000 pickers are being impacted and about 7,500 packinghouse workers. “We are going to have to pick the fruit one way or the other — for juice or fresh -- so the pickers will have work. It is the packinghouse workers who will really feel the impact of this. Those are the workers we need to get help for,” said Hill. California Citrus Mutual has been in the forefront of getting help for workers.

Packinghouses have already started laying off workers because the arctic freeze has halted picking throughout California. When it starts up again as fruit starts to come in, it will be a short-lived run. Joel Nelsen of California Citrus Mutual expects packing to stop in March. It is not likely to pick up significantly for Valencias. Reports indicate damage is very heavy in that summer fruit because it was immature with low sugar when frosts hit.

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