Valley citrus growers keep battling cold nights

The Fresno BeeDecember 8, 2013 

Saturday night's slight warm-up gave a bit of a respite to citrus growers who have been battling to protect their crops from below-freezing temperatures, but growers say the battle isn't over yet.

Temperatures were one or two degrees higher than expected Saturday night and early Sunday for most areas in the central San Joaquin Valley, keeping damage to oranges and mandarins at a minimum, Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, said Sunday.

The fruit's maturity and high sugar content helped minimize the damage, Nelsen said, but mandarins may have some freeze damage because of their thin skins.

"We were expecting the worst," he said. "But we're not out of this yet, we still have two more nights to go."

Keith Watkins of Bee Sweet Citrus said that although temperatures have been low, most citrus farmers "have the technology to produce a quality piece of fruit."

By using wind machines and irrigation water, and with warmer daytime temperatures, Bee Sweet has not seen much damage, Watkins said. On both Thursday and Friday nights, Bee Sweet ran wind machines for 14 hours straight. By 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Watkins said he knew the wind machines would be running all evening and night. "The cost stacks up," he said.

He called Sunday a "critical night."

Wind machines were used on 23 days last year, but low temperatures hovered around 28 or 29 degrees, Watkins said. Growers will soon know if two degrees colder makes a difference, he said.

Lows for Sunday and Monday overnight were forecast to hover in the low-to-mid 20s throughout the Valley. The overnight low in Fresno was expected to hit 27 degrees Sunday and Monday night, and as low as 20 degrees Sunday night in Madera Ranchos, said Jim Dudley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford. Los Angeles was also hit by cold temperatures, with Saturday's overnight lows in the high 30s, and daytime highs reaching the 50s -- nearly 20 degrees below the seasonal average.

Valley citrus growers -- who tend trees across about 220,000 acres with a crop that's worth an estimated $1.5 billion -- have already spent more than $20 million to protect crops from below-freezing temperatures since the middle of last week, Nelsen said, using tactics such as irrigation water, wind machines and helicopters to warm up the air and soil.

Growers say overall damage will be determined in the coming weeks as temperatures rise across the Valley. More than 4.5 billion mandarins and 11 billion oranges are at risk for damage, Nelsen said.

These Valley warming centers are open during the cold spell:

Frank H. Ball Neighborhood Center, 760 Mayor Ave., Fresno; (559) 621-CITY (2489).

Fresno Rescue Mission, 310 G St., Fresno; (559) 268-0839.

Visalia Rescue Mission, 322 NE First Ave., Visalia; (559) 740-4178.

Visalia Rescue Mission Community Center, 741 N. Santa Fe St., Visalia.

Chowchilla Senior Center, 820 W. Robertson Blvd., Chowchilla; (559) 665-1089.

Frank Bergon Senior Center, 238 S. D St., Madera; (559) 673-4293.

Ranchos/Hills Senior Center, 37339 Berkshire Drive, Madera; (559) 645-4864.

Madera Rescue Mission, 332 Elm Ave., Madera; (559) 675-8321.

Pan Am Community Center, 703 E. Sherwood Way, Madera; (559) 675-2095.

Coarsegold Community Center, 35540 Highway 41, Coarsegold; (559) 683-7953.

Yosemite Lakes Park Clubhouse, 30250 Yosemite Springs Parkway, Coarsegold; (559) 658-7466.

Sierra Senior Center, 49111 Cinder Lane, Oakhurst; (559) 683-3811.

Tulare County residents can call 211 for information.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6659, or @DianaT_Aguilera.

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