Freezing temperatures had farmers on edge as many try to protect crops

Freeze hits valley crops, but citrus growers think they may escape much damage

East of Fresno, farmers overnight use wind and water to keep crops, from citrus to fruit trees, from being damaged by frost.
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East of Fresno, farmers overnight use wind and water to keep crops, from citrus to fruit trees, from being damaged by frost.

An early-morning freeze put area farmers on full alert Tuesday, but the damage – if any – may not show up for days or even weeks.

Citrus growers, whose crops are among the most susceptible to subfreezing temperatures, saw the thermostat drop to the low 20s for up to five hours in the coldest areas of the central San Joaquin Valley. Many deployed frost-protection measures including wind machines and irrigation water to try to prevent any damage.

Citrus industry officials say the frost protections, combined with mature fruit on the trees, may have saved this year’s citrus crop. About half of the navel and mandarin crop remains on the tree.

“Given the timing of this freeze event and the good size and sugar content of the crop at this point in the season, growers do not anticipate any damage,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a group based in Exeter that lobbies for growers.

Frost wilts and damaged leaves of vegetables in a field off Highway 180 east of Fresno, early Tuesday morning. JOHN WALKER

But it isn’t just this year’s crop that farmers are worried about, since a hard freeze could destroy fruit buds that have begun emerging.

Nelsen said citrus trees have started blooming two to four weeks earlier than usual.

“Drastic swings in temperature such as what we are experiencing now may cause the early, fragile blooms to drop, which could translate to a smaller crop for the 2018-19 season,” Nelsen said. “The coming days will reveal if damage was incurred. Growers are optimistic that if there is damage the trees will have ample time to bounce back and push out another set of blooms this spring.”

Cold impact on almonds

Freezing temperatures have also put almond growers on the defense. Fresno County grower Don Cameron began watering his almonds several days ago to help raise the temperature in his orchards. The more humidity that’s created, the more slowly the temperature will drop.

Cameron, who farms around the Five Points area, said the temperature dropped to the upper 20s early Tuesday morning. Subfreezing temperatures could damage the buds on blooming nut trees.

If there is damage, growers will see an increase in buds dropping off their trees within a few weeks.


Also of concern are the cool daytime temperatures this time of the year. This is prime pollination time for the state’s almond industry. Millions of bees are needed to pollinate the hundreds of thousands of almond acres. But bees don’t like cool temperatures. They work best when the temperature is 55 degrees and above.

“The period of time to pollinate is really limited,” Cameron said. “And from what I have seen, we have a fairly cool period of weather that we still have to get through.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

Cold continues

Freeze warning: For the central and southern San Joaquin Valley from midnight Tuesday to 8 a.m. Wednesday. Lows will range from 28 to 32 degrees.

Forecast: High in Fresno Wednesday will be 60 degrees, with the overnight low falling to 35.

Next chance for rain: Ten percent chance of showers Wednesday night; 30 percent chance Thursday; 40 percent on Thursday night.