Valley citrus suffers $434 million in damage from December freeze

The Fresno BeeFebruary 3, 2014 

A punishing freeze in early December will cost San Joaquin Valley citrus growers $434 million in revenue, industry officials said Monday.

Hardest hit was the region's mandarin industry. Farmers lost 40% of their crop due to subfreezing temperatures that gripped the Valley's citrus belt late last year. The popular, easy-peeling fruit was decimated by temperatures that dropped into the low 20s and upper teens in some areas.

Although farmers deployed their usual frost protection devices, including wind machines and irrigation water, the temperature was too cold, for too long.

"You can try all you want to use wind machines and water, but when it got as cold as it did, there wasn't a lot you can do to get the temperature back up," said Kevin Severns, chairman of California Citrus Mutual, an industry group based in Exeter. "And we absolutely sympathize with those growers."

California Citrus Mutual, which represents 70% of the state's $2 billion citrus industry, estimates the freeze cost mandarin growers $150 million in lost revenue.

Navel oranges, the Valley's predominate citrus crop, are more frost tolerant and suffered only a 30% loss from the freeze. The loss pencils out to $260 million in lost revenue.

The Valley's lemon crop fared better than expected with only a 20% loss and $24 million in lost revenue.

California Citrus Mutual officials say that with the devastating losses, consumers can expect a shorter season for California citrus and the possibility of a slight increase in orange prices. A shorter season will also translate to fewer hours for hundreds of workers employed by the Valley's packing houses.

Previous freezes, including the 1998 freeze, resulted in layoffs across the Valley's citrus industry.

This time around, the industry's navel orange packing houses will continue to operate but will end their season in late April or May instead of late June or July, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual.

"There is still a lot of good fruit out there," Blakely said.

To help find good citrus fruit, growers are using freeze-detection technology and added inspections to separate the good from the bad.

Blakely said the industry is taking extra care to make sure that only quality fruit is being sold to consumers and that prices do not rise dramatically.

Valley growers spent an estimated $49 million to protect their crops and will be spending additional dollars for increased inspections. Some of those costs will be passed on to retail buyers, who may in turn pass that cost on to consumers.

Growers learned a bitter lesson during the 2007 freeze when the per-box price for oranges spiked too high, driving retail buyers away.

This time around, prices have risen slightly by about $2 a box from early December.

"Shippers are taking more of a metered approach," Blakely said. "But we will see prices gradually begin to move upward as supplies tighten. And at the consumer level we can expect to see some increase, but that will vary from store to store."

Fruit that doesn't make it to the grocery store, could end up being sent to one of several juicing plants in the Valley. But that window of opportunity is shrinking, growers and packers say.

Tom Wollenman, vice president of special operations for LoBue Citrus in Lindsay, said that as the weather gets warmer, the freeze-damaged fruit will begin to dry out rapidly. Growers get paid based on the weight, or amount of juice, in the fruit.

They also receive substantially less for juice. Growers may get 50 to 70 cents a carton compared to an average of $10 a carton at the retail level.

"You can have blocks of oranges where a guy gets $8,000 an acre and two miles along the river you have a guy who will get $100 an acre," Wollenman said. "The difference is huge and that is what makes these freezes so costly."

 


The damage from the freeze

Crop loss due to freeze lost revenue

Navel oranges 30% $260 million

Mandarins 40% $150 million

Lemons 20% $24 million

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

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