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Saturday, Dec 14 2013 08:00 PM

Citrus freeze may be uniquely damaging

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Spaces and discoloration in the cara cara navel oranges are indicators of frost damage.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    In this Dec. 13 file photo, Jennifer Stilwill, supervising biologist, foreground, and Brian Gatza, ag biologist, background, inspect citrus for freeze damage at the Kern County Ag Commissioner's office Friday.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Ag technician Gordon Beagley inspects mandarin oranges at the Kern County Ag Commissioner's office Friday.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    A severely damaged mandarin orange, right, is compared with one with very little damage, left.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Cara cara navel oranges are sliced and ready for inspection for freeze damage at the Kern County Ag Commissioner's office Friday.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Jennifer Stilwill with the Kern County Ag Commissioner's office holds up a cara cara navel variety orange that normally has a reddish color in this Dec. 13 photo. She points out that discoloration and spaces in the cut orange are indicators of freeze damage to the orange.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

The recent freeze that ruined an undetermined amount of Kern County produce was not a new experience for local citrus farmers, who have endured bad weather and lost crops worth millions in the past.

Neither was it the longest freeze nor the most severe.

Related Info

OVERNIGHT TEMPERATURES DEC. 8-9

The recent cold snap reached its worst early Monday morning. In Delano, temperatures bottomed out at 22.8 degrees for half an hour. Below are data on where and for how long the mercury fell below 26 degrees, considered a dangerous threshold for some citrus:

Delano8.25 hours

McFarland7.5 hours

Shafter7.5 hours

Edison6.25 hours

Bear Mountain6 hours

Maricopa7.45 hours

Arvin0.25 hours

Source: Kern County Agricultural Commissioner's office

But industry veterans say the event's uniquely damaging aspects -- unfortunate timing combined with longer-term changes in consumer tastes and production -- narrowly missed becoming a countywide destructive force.

The economic loss for Kern's economy won't be known for months. Yet growers, producers and observers acknowledge that they dodged a bullet.

"Right now, there's damage," county Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo said. "But I don't think it's to the extent that we had in 2007," when a frost ruined about half Kern's citrus crop, costing growers an estimated $179 million.

It also is sure to raise prices to consumers down the line, though by how much won't become clear until the extent of the damage is better understood.

CALENDAR CREEP

The freeze arrived significantly earlier than in recent years past -- early December, before the industry was able to harvest more than about a quarter of its crop. The trade group California Citrus Mutual labeled it "the earliest severe freeze event in over 25 years."

Actually, meteorologist Paul Iniguez with the National Weather Service in Hanford reported that the Bakersfield area hasn't experienced an early season stretch of morning temperatures that low, with a three-day average no higher than 27 degrees, since Dec. 10-12, 1972.

"Something like this is unusual," he said, noting that the coldest air typically comes a few weeks after the winter solstice, meaning sometime in January.

Had the freeze set in later, growers would have had time to harvest more of their fruit, possibly avoiding the brunt of the damage.

"Even a week or two weeks (later), there would've been significantly less fruit" on the trees, Bakersfield citrus advisor Craig Kallsen said.

Also, just because the cold arrived earlier than normal doesn't mean another freeze won't come later in the season.

"It's not a one-and-done type of thing," Iniguez said. "There is definitely randomness tied to it."

The recent cold snap was caused by a southward dip of the polar jet stream, an ever-fluctuating flow of fast-moving air. Iniguez said the cold air mass from Canada settled in the southern Central Valley and stubbornly refused to leave.

The freeze hit Kern's $620 million citrus crop Dec. 4 and lingered for eight nights, with a one-day reprieve the morning of Dec. 7.

The worst of it came the night of Dec. 8-9, according to the county Agricultural Commissioner's office. In the Delano area, the office's field staff recorded temperatures as low as 22.8 degrees lasting for half an hour the morning of Dec. 9.

Generally speaking, temperatures below about 28 degrees endanger citrus, though the extent of the damage depends on the duration of the cold, sugar content (more is better) and the kind of fruit. Navels tend to be hardier because of their thick skins, while mandarins' thin peels provide less insulation.

The danger is that citrus juice sacs can freeze and rupture, allowing their moisture to evaporate through the fruit's skin. Within two or three days, the produce becomes dry and worthless. Growers can sell freeze-damaged fruit for juicing, but at a price much lower than if the fruit were sold whole.

This freeze was damaging largely because of its duration. The problem with day-after-day cold weather is that it gives fruit little time to thaw, and so it can gradually break down, said Kallsen, a citrus and pistachio advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension.

One saving grace is that the recent cold changed from what's known as an invective freeze to what Kallsen calls a radiative freeze.

The difference is that invective freezes have no inversion layer, and so there is no warm air above the cold that can be blown down from a few hundred feet in the air using wind machines and helicopters, Kallsen said.

"Growers have a real fighting chance here," he said.

While there are stories of devastating freezes dating back to the 1930s and '40s, the worst one in recent memory began in late December 1990.

It destroyed not only all fruit still hanging on trees, but also many of the trees themselves. It caused an estimated $84 million in damage in Kern, more than half the county's citrus crop, as overnight temperatures hung below 20 degrees for about two weeks.

"The 1990-91 freeze was what we would call the granddaddy of all freezes. It wiped out the entire industry," said Shirley Batchman, director of government affairs for the trade group California Citrus Mutual. "This (current) freeze is not anywhere near like that."

CONSUMER TASTES

Although the recent cold may not have been worse across the board than earlier freezes, it appears to have taken an especially heavy toll on the new darlings of Kern citrus: mandarins.

Marketed by Delano-based Paramount Citrus markets as Halos, and as Cuties by Pasadena-based Sun Pacific, mandarins netted Kern growers about $194 million last year, when they were worth more than twice as much per pound as navel oranges, the county's overall top citrus seller.

Mandarins took off in popularity in 2008. Their Kern County sales that year more than doubled from about $65 million in 2007 to $166 million.

During the last significant freeze, in January 2007, navels suffered the lion's share of the damage in Kern. That year, mandarins made up only about 3,900 acres across the county; by 2012, the fruit's productive acreage had grown to take up three times that much space in Kern.

Although a full accounting is not expected for months, early indications from industry and county inspectors were that the recent cold had damaged a far larger share of mandarins than navels.

Therein lies another distinction of this freeze: Traditionally, Kern has sent almost all of its citrus north to packing houses in Tulare and Fresno counties. Not anymore.

With the rising popularity of mandarins, Paramount and Sun Pacific have opened large packing houses in Kern, thus increasing the county's economic liability if the freeze results in widespread warehouse layoffs, as happened in 2007.

Another difference between then and now is the popularity of crop insurance. Relatively few local growers carried policies in 1990.

"It was kind of a new concept," Batchman said. "After 1990, then they all went, 'Ooh, we'd better take a look at this.'"

Crop insurance, however, has serious limitations. It typically covers the cost of growing the crop but not the lost income. Though helpful, crop insurance "doesn't make you whole by any stretch," Batchman said.

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