Valley citrus packers: First the freeze, now sorting out damaged fruit

The Fresno BeeDecember 28, 2013 

San Joaquin Valley citrus packers are hiring extra workers and inspecting fruit as they try to separate the good from the bad after an early December freeze.

Although citrus industry officials are reluctant to put a percentage on the damage from nearly a dozen days of subfreezing temperatures, some citrus packers are estimating damage at between 30% to 50% for the entire industry.

"That is the range that is being discussed among packers," said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual in Exeter. "But we don't have a number that we are comfortable with yet."

Blakely said it will take a few more weeks for the full extent of the damage to materialize to the Valley's $1.5 billion citrus crop.

Over time, freeze-damaged fruit will begin to dry out and become lighter, making it easier for specialized equipment to kick out bad fruit.

The equipment that moves the citrus along a series of rollers can measure the weight of the fruit, or its density, to determine which pieces are lighter. Packing-house workers and county agriculture inspectors also do a visual inspection by cutting open the fruit and looking for signs of damage, such as tiny white crystals.

So far, county inspectors have found spotty damage throughout the Valley's citrus belt. At packinghouses, if inspectors find more than 15% damage in a specific lot of fruit, it will be rejected and must be repacked.

Fred Rinder, Fresno County deputy agricultural commissioner, said recent inspections have found some lots with as much as 27% damage and others with little damage.

Fruit that can't be salvaged will be sent to juice plants and growers will receive significantly less money.

"We have seen some lots go to the juicing plants already," Rinder said.

David Roth, president of Cecelia Packing in Orange Cove, said growers rely on every tool they have to find good oranges to sell. This year's crop, which was only 15% harvested before the freeze hit, is estimated at 88 million cartons, down slightly from the previous year.

At Cecelia Packing, the company uses equipment that measures the weight of the fruit.

"We have tuned up those machines, bought spare parts and have everything ready to go," Roth said.

Other growers, including Bee Sweet Citrus in Fowler, are using technology that weighs the fruit and measures the density inside the orange to see whether there is damage.

Jim Marderosian, president of Bee Sweet Citrus, said the equipment is picking up some dryness in mandarins, lemons and navels.

"We are still cutting fruit and trying to determine the extent of the damage, but I think there is a lot of good fruit out there," Marderosian said.

The fruit grower and packer has pulled samples of fruit from its ranches to come up with a percentage of damage for each area. Areas with significant damage will not be packed, but stripped from the tree and sent to the region's juicing plants.

Growers and packers can't wait too long, however, or the damaged fruit won't have enough juice to be of value.

"After a freeze happens, there are lots of moving parts that a packinghouse has to figure out," Marderosian said. "And there are lots of costs associated with this that you have to make sure you are compensated for."

Already, the cost of frost protection, including wind machines and running irrigation water, is estimated $32.4 million. Other costs include the added labor for stripping fruit off the trees and for picking out damaged fruit in the packinghouses.

"There are some growers who are putting out requests for labor to get that fruit off the tree and send it to the juice plant," Blakely said

The added costs will likely cause an increase in the price for oranges.

"The market will begin adjusting once it becomes apparent what the damage has been and if it tightens the supply of fruit," Blakely said. "We don't anticipate a big jump, but that is the tendency in the market when freezes happen."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, brodriguez@fresnobee.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.

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