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Freeze Leads to Layoffs; Prices Expected to Climb

December 27, 1990

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ A cold wave that ruined California’s navel orange crop, which could make the fruit scarce and pricy, is robbing thousands of citrus workers of their jobs, agriculture experts say.

About 450 people were fired Wednesday at LoBue Bros. one of the biggest packing houses in the San Joaquin Valley.

″It was with deep regret that we had to discharge that many people the day after Christmas,″ said general manager G.A. Wollenman. ″That’s no kind of Christmas present.″

Joel Nelsen, manager of California Citrus Mutual, a growers organization, estimated 15,000 people will be out of work; the state’s estimated 70 citrus packing houses will have nothing for them to do. An undetermined number of harvest workers will also have to look elsewhere for jobs, he said.

The damage to crops inflicted by the sustained freeze that gripped much of the country before Christmas occurred mostly in California, said a report by the federal Joint Agricultural Facility in Washington.

Hardest hit was the California navel orange crop, which comprises nearly 2 percent of the state’s annual $16.5 billion agricultural yield.

About 80 percent of the current crop remained unpicked when the freeze hit and thus was destroyed.

″I do not believe there is a lemon or orange in the San Joaquin Valley,″ said farmer Don Laux. ″We basically don’t have anything left. It’s over.″

California navels generally are sold fresh, in contrast to Florida’s $1.3 billion orange crop, which mainly becomes juice.

The dollar loss to California’s navel orange crop was estimated Thursday at $286 million to $288 million by agriculture officials in the three San Joaquin Valley counties where they are grown commercially.

Industry observers said the frost caused the worst damage anyone can remember.

″Prices could double because of the severe damage in the Central Valley,″ said Claire Peters of Sunkist Growers, marketing cooperative for about 6,000 California and Arizona growers.

″The fruit will be well-tested, so the quality should be fine, but there won’t be as much and it will be more expensive,″ Peters said.

No price increases were found at several major Southern California supermarket chains checked Thursday. But produce department managers for the Vons and Ralphs chains said they expected a rise in the current price of 69 cents per pound.

Meanwhile, some growers and packers are seeking federal relief and workers are lining up at unemployment offices.

Brad Stark said he would have to lay off between 200 and 300 people at his packing shed. In a normal year, his plants pack more than 3 million cartons of oranges. This year, less than 5 percent of the fruit can be salvaged and Stark expects his losses to approach $30 million.

As citrus farmers are trying to reckon the damage wrought by the pre- Christmas freeze, others are concerned about a second cold snap headed their way.

Third-generation farmer Gary Cavilia knows he’s already lost this year’s crop of oranges, but so far his trees have withstood the cold.

Another freeze, predicted for the weekend, could cause tree splits. Extensive tree splits could set farmers back up to five years. That’s how long it would take to have trees fully producing crops again.

″Most farmers, myself included, are not quitters,″ said Dave Daguerre, who owns a 30-acre orchard. ″But the thing that is really scary is this next storm. If it drops rain and freezes, I don’t think anyone has any hope.″

Cavilia has invested about $1,100 an acre on his 150-acre orchard this season.

″It’s going to be a belt-tightening year,″ he said. ″I’m just struggling to keep my trees alive.″

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