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Freeze Devastates California Orange Crop, Damages Others

December 25, 1990

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ The worst freeze since 1937 devastated California’s navel orange crop, sending growers into Christmas with little hope of salvaging the season’s harvest.

″This is way worse than I’ve ever seen,″ Bakersfield-area grower John Slikker Jr. said Monday. ″Yesterday, we cut these oranges in half. ... It was just like cutting through a Popsicle.″

The weekend Arctic blast also damaged nursery plants, lemons and avocados and destroyed most early Southern California strawberries, agriculture officials said. Crop damage was put in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Cliff Holland of California Citrus Mutual, a growers organization, admitted the string of freezing nights probably destroyed the state’s 1990-91 navel orange harvest.

″It will take some time to assess damage, but it looks bleak at this point,″ he said. About 80 percent of the 1990-91 crop, estimated at between 60 million cartons and 80 million cartons, remained on the trees, Holland said.

Most of California’s navel oranges are sold on the fresh market. Florida oranges, in contrast, are used mostly for juice and juice concentrate; those that sustain frost damage can sometimes be salvaged for juice processing.

The Sunkist Growers Inc. cooperative said early estimates indicated that at least half the citrus crop sustained frost damage, spokeswoman Claire Peters said. She added that growers hope to salvage some for juice.

″There will be fewer fruit and what there is will cost more,″ Peters said.

Inmporters of Chilean fruit, like Los Angeles-based David Oppenheimer & Co., expected demand for foreign fruit to increase as markets scramble to make up for local losses.

It was ″freeze-of-the-century stuff,″ said Dave Carman of the National Weather Service. ″This is probably the second-coldest freeze of the century. We are dealing with extreme record cold.″

Since Friday, temperatures throughout the San Joaquin Valley citrus region had dipped to 20 degrees and below and were forecast to drop into the teens early today. It was the worst freeze since 1937, officials said.

Navel oranges begin to show damage if temperatures fall to 25 or 26 degrees and stay at that level or below for at least four hours, Holland said.

″Basically, I have written off the crop that is on the tree,″ said Chris Caviglia, a Tulare County grower. ″What I’m concerned about now is the crop for next year. I could very well lose it as well if the trees aren’t protected.″

The navels were more vulnerable than normal this season because they were about two weeks late in maturing, leaving the rinds too thin to ward off much cold. California navels are harvested between November and June.

The 1989 navel orange crop was valued at $248 million, compared to $1.29 billion in Florida orange production that year.

Losses in Tulare County, which produces most of the state’s navel oranges, were expected to be about $200 million, said county Agriculture Commissioner Lenord Craft. State officials said most strawberries were lost but provided no dollar figure for the damage.

In Ventura County, losses to lemons, avocados and nursery stocks, or nonfood-bearing plants, totaled at least $100 million, said Jim Fulmer, deputy agricultural commissioner.

About one-fifth of the state’s avocados, which account for 90 percent of national consumption, were lost, said Mark Affleck, president of the California Avocado Commission.

The extent of damage to vegetable fields in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys wasn’t known, but some farmers reported losses.

Joe P. Prandini, general manager of Betteravia Farms Co., said he lost about 35 percent of the cauliflower grown on his 4,000-acre farm.

Holland said California growers have been fortunate in avoiding devastating freezes in the past. Some have saved for a bad year, but others will be hurt.

″I talk to growers who try to keep a minimum of one year’s farming costs in the bank, but we also have people in the industry with tremendous debt on groves,″ he said. ″There are going to be some hard times.″

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