FRESNO, Calif. — As an unusual cold spell hits parts of the West for a fifth day, some California citrus growers reported damage to crops and an agriculture official said national prices on lettuce have started to rise because of lost produce in Arizona.
The extreme chill in the West comes as the eastern U.S., from Atlanta to New York City, is seeing springlike weather.
In California's San Joaquin Valley, where farmers are fighting to protect about $1.5 billion worth of citrus fruit on their trees, Sunday temperatures dropped to 25 degrees in some areas and stayed low longer than previous nights.
Prolonged temperatures in the mid-20s or below cause damage to citrus crops.
“It was our coldest night to date,” said Paul Story, of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, an association of the state's 3,900 citrus growers. “I think mandarin growers are going to see a range of significant damage, enough that they will have to separate their crops.”
Mandarins are more susceptible to cold than other citrus and start to freeze about 32 degrees, Story said. Because many mandarin trees were planted in recent years as the fruit's popularity soared, they are grown in colder areas outside the traditional citrus belt.
Sugar inhibits freeze
Other citrus crops saw little or minimal damage, Story said. This year's high sugar content in oranges helped protect them, he said, because sugar inhibits freezing.
Growers deployed wind machines to keep the warm air closer to the ground and irrigation to raise the temperature in the groves. Rows farthest away from the protection could be damaged, Story said. And farmers who do not have wind machines could lose crops.
Lindsey-based Robert LoBue — who grows 1,000 acres of citrus, including mandarins — said wind machines were critical in his groves, but saving the crop doesn't come cheap. LoBue runs one wind machine for every 10 acres and has to employ a crew to operate them.
“We're very diligent, we run the wind and water all night,” LoBue said, “but we're spending thousands of dollars to protect these crops.”
And farmers are on the hook for a fifth cold night: a freeze warning remains in effect until 10 a.m. Tuesday for central California.
Pickers may lose jobs
In Southern California, where strong winds helped keep some crops out of danger by keeping the cold from settling, farmers said any damage would negatively impact workers and consumers.
“We have between 170 to 200 employees and if we can't pick we have to lay off our picking crews,” said John Gless, a third-generation Riverside-based grower.
And if there's less fruit to pick, Gless said prices will go up.
Temperatures in downtown Los Angeles fell to 34 degrees, breaking the previous record of 36 degrees set on Jan. 14, 2007.