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Prices for California citrus soar after temperatures plummet

Thursday, January 18, 2007

(Photo)
Drip irrigation created icicles and formed an insulation protecting oranges on the trees Saturday in Exeter, Calif. Grocery retailers are taking stock of the impact that California's freeze will have on supplies and the prices of citrus, berries and other damaged crops in their stores.
(Gary Kazanjian ~ Associated Press file)
FRESNO, Calif. -- From Valentine's Day bouquets to Superbowl spreads, shoppers soon will be feeling the sting of higher prices from a wave of icy weather that has hit California farms.

As much as three-quarters of the state's citrus crop withered in the field during the cold snap, but nearly every winter crop, from avocados to fresh-cut flowers, has suffered severely.

The shortages' impact wasn't lost on Joseph Vasquez, who realized what it could mean for his party plans with NFL playoffs in full swing.

"Avocados are expensive enough as it is," the 32-year-old Pasadena school teacher said. "We may have to do without guacamole for a while. And we may be drinking our Coronas without limes."

Price increases still won't be enough to offset the damage, as growers cope with nearly $1 billion in losses following four consecutive nights of subfreezing temperatures.

On Tuesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the federal government for disaster aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Small Business Administration for growers and other affected businesses.

"This is not just about the crop this year. It could also have a devastating effect next year," Schwarzenegger said after touring a devastated orange grove in Fresno. "My administration will make sure that we do everything we can to help the farmers and workers get through this."

The state's citrus industry stands to take the biggest economic hit of all crops.

No. 1 producer

California is the nation's No. 1 producer of fresh citrus, growing about 86 percent of lemons and 21 percent of oranges sold in the United States, according to the California Farm Bureau. Florida produces more citrus overall, mostly for use in orange juice, according to the USDA.

Growers say more than 70 percent of this season's oranges, lemons and tangerines were still on the trees as nighttime temperatures in California's Central Valley dipped into the low 20s and teens beginning Friday. The fruit is threatened whenever the mercury falls below 28 degrees.

"Limited amounts were harvested before the freeze, so it's not like the markets are going to dry up suddenly," said Claire Smith, a spokeswoman for Sunkist Growers Inc., a Los Angeles-based cooperative owned by some 6,000 growers in California and Arizona.

Still, the diminished supply is bound to drive up prices, Smith said. Sunkist may import oranges and other fruit from South Africa and other countries.

"We may adjust the prices as we discover the full extent of the damage next week, but for now, if you bought an orange at the supermarket for 50 cents, expect to pay a dollar to $1.49 for it," said Todd Steel, owner of Royal Vista Marketing, which sells California citrus to markets throughout the country.

Damages from the freeze will likely surpass those from a three-day cold snap in December 1998 that destroyed 85 percent of California's citrus crop, a loss valued at $700 million, state Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura said.

The state also suffered a deep freeze in 1990 -- one that completely wiped out the $1 billion crop. It took growers two years to recover.

Labor leaders are also watching the weather closely. They estimate as many as 12,000 field workers and packing house employees could lose their jobs for the remainder of the season.

The state may offer emergency unemployment assistance to workers laid off because of the crisis, said Henry Renteria, director of the state Office of Emergency Services.

Damaged fruit from the current freeze may still be salvaged as juice, usually a byproduct for California farmers, Smith said.

Adverse weather has also taken a toll on the Florida-dominated orange juice industry in recent years. After two nasty hurricane seasons compounded by drought and crop disease, PepsiCo Inc., which sells juice under the Tropicana and Dole labels, and Coca-Cola Co., which owns Minute Maid, each raised orange juice prices over the past several weeks.

Inflated prices also are expected for other crops that have fallen victim to the icy California weather, state agricultural officials said.

Lee Cole, chief of Santa Paula-based Calavo Growers Inc., which sells 35 to 40 percent of the state's $380 million avocado crop, said the freeze may have claimed up to 40 percent of Calavo's crop in Ventura County, with damage along the less-frigid coast between San Luis Obispo and Escondido hovering between 25 and 35 percent.

"Prices will certainly be higher," he said.

If the damage is severe, the trees could also bear fewer avocados next year, Cole said.

Strawberries growing along the coastal regions of Southern California were mostly ruined, according to the California Strawberry Commission. The freeze also destroyed flowers that would produce the next berry crop on each plant.

Growers in the Imperial Valley also were worried about tender vegetables such as lettuce that may not have held up to nearly a week of temperatures in the mid-20s, said Brad Rippey, a USDA meteorologist.

Throughout the cold snap, growers have tried to save their crops by pumping fields with heated irrigation water and running wind machines to circulate warmer air and keep it from rising off the trees.

For cut-flower producers, the damage mostly will be felt in the form of increased heating costs, said Kathryn Miele, director of marketing for the California Cut Flower Commission, which represents several hundred growers.

Many flowers -- including the Valentine's Day rose crop -- are pampered indoors, meaning growers are forced to spend more to keep greenhouses balmy, she said.

As state and county inspectors continue assessing the damage, fruit packers have been asked to keep produce harvested during the freeze on hold for five days to monitor quality problems and keep damaged fruit off shelves.


Associated Press writers Jacob Adelman, Mike Blood and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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