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Tuesday, Jan 28 2014 11:59 AM

Preliminary Kern citrus freeze losses exceed $100 million

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Kern County citrus grower Dick Minetti is concerned in this Dec. 3 photo about the cold front moving into Kern County and will take precautions for the fruit that is still on the trees on his 30-acre plot.

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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 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 STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

The December freeze was bad for Kern County’s citrus crop, but Tuesday it got a lot worse.

Preliminary estimates suggest losses will easily top $100 million, and maybe more.

Official loss estimates won’t be available until April.

Even as area farmers are dealing with one of the worst droughts in history, county Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo told the Kern County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that local growers of lemons, tangerines and mandarins have lost as much as half their crop to freeze damage.

Arroyo estimated 15 percent of Kern County’s Valencia orange crop and 35 percent of other large orange varieties also are damaged.

Lemons may have taken the biggest percentage hit as growers and packers — the ag commissioner’s sources of information — estimated 50 percent of the total will not meet fresh market standards. Tangerines and mandarins, which are more widely planted and more lucrative than lemons, may have sustained as much damage. Losses for those varieties are estimated at between 40 percent and 50 percent.

“We haven’t assessed a dollar loss to it,” Arroyo said. Those numbers will likely be ready when the county’s annual crop report is released in April.

At that time, the losses will be estimated by comparing them with the gross value of the crops averaged over the previous five years.

But one can calculate a ballpark estimate by looking at the 2012 Kern County Crop Report, the latest assessment of crop values in the county.

According to the report, the total citrus crop in Kern County was worth more than $620 million in 2012, up from $540 million the previous year.

Tangerines, mandarins and tangelos were valued at $194 million in 2012, down slightly from $198 million the previous year. Navel oranges, the county’s most valuable citrus commodity, were worth nearly $282 million.

When comparing the percentage of 2013’s damaged fruit to the 2012 crop values, the estimated losses for that year would have exceeded $200 million.

Alyssa Houtby of California Citrus Mutual, a grower organization based in Exeter, said the freeze damage estimates are higher in Kern than in counties to the north. But she’s not surprised.

“The damage from one area to another can be so different,” Houtby said.

As of this week, about one-third of the navel orange crop had been harvested, Houtby said. Picking can begin as early as October and extend into July. But this year, the harvest season will likely end early, probably by May.

And that means workers in citrus packing operations up and down the valley will likely feel the economic pinch as they are needed for fewer days’ work.

California Citrus Mutual said growers spent $49 million in December and early January for water and wind machines to try and protect their crops.

So far, almost all freeze-damaged fruit has been processed for juice. It’s not a particularly profitable alternative, but it can cushion the fall for hard-hit growers.

Consumers will see citrus prices rise, Houtby predicted, but the increases are expected to be moderate as the industry is wary of scaring away customers.

Historically, the freeze of 2013 was not as bad as the 1990 freeze or the 1998-1999 freeze, Houtby said.

“But it is historic,” she said, “because it started so early in the season and lasted a long time.”

Ben Taft, a grower, packer and manager of California Fruit Depot in Edison, said Arroyo’s estimates of damage are “spot-on.” And so are California Citrus Mutual’s characterizations of the variability of damage.

“It depends on where the area is,” he said. “We lost 100 percent of our lemons. I don’t know about our Valencias yet, but we lost 40 percent of the navels that were still on our trees.”

And yet, Taft lost only about 5 percent of his mandarins.

Still, nature kept piling on. The big wind that hammered Kern County last Thursday knocked down or scarred a significant proportion of the fruit still on his trees.

And when the rind is scarred — even if the fruit inside is perfect — growers can’t send the produce to market.

“I would call this year a salvage operation,” Taft said. “We’re trying to salvage as much fruit as possible.

“And then look forward to next year.”

 

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