Freeze damages citrus; impacts other crops

Issue Date: December 11, 2013
By Kate Campbell
Icicles create a cold barrier to protect Orland farmer Samuel Sanchez’s citrus during more than a week of freezing temperatures in California.
Photos/Kathy Coatney
Newly planted trees, like this Chandler walnut sapling, were coated in ice to insulate them from the double-barreled arctic blast.
Photos/Kathy Coatney

A double-dip cold spell has had California tree fruit farmers and winter crop growers scrambling to protect their crops from freezing for more than a week. Although higher overnight temperatures materialized last weekend, California Citrus Mutual said Sunday night's extremely low temperatures will likely result in some damage to the San Joaquin Valley's $1.5 billion citrus crop.

Farmers continued battling low temperatures through mid-week, with hard freezes at night—temperatures dipping into the danger zone between 21 to 27 degrees F, lower still in some valley areas. The National Weather Service predicted moderation in cold temperatures into next week.

"Damage in our orchards is variable," said Tulare County citrus grower Keith Watkins. "The water and wind machines have been effective, but there are spots along the edges of orchards and places away from the wind machines that look like they'll have damage."

Although it's still too soon to tell how much damage freezing temperatures have caused, Watkins said, "I think the mandarins will be affected fairly severely. I've cut some fruit in the field that looks like it will be OK, but I've also cut into frozen fruit."

Crews throughout the state have been working around the clock to increase temperatures in the groves and orchards to prevent freeze damage to crops and trees, even raising temperatures a few degrees can prevent fruit damage, experts said.

"Our crews are working 14 to 16-hour night shifts, Watkins said. "Sunday night we started the wind machines about 7 p.m. and didn't turn them off until about 9 a.m. Monday morning. Our propane costs to operate 200 wind machines for that many hours runs about $60,000 a night."

California Citrus Mutual estimates the overall cost to citrus growers for six nights of frost protection at $23 million with additional nights of freezing temperatures forecast. San Joaquin Valley citrus growers also are starting to run out of water to protect trees and fruit from freeze damage.

"It's a double-edged sword because this is a low water year and we're short of water for frost protection," Watkins said.

While damage is expected, growers said it's certainly not at levels close to damage caused by the last significant freeze events in 1998 and 1990. Improved frost protection technology and advanced weather forecasting have allowed farmers to better prepare for freeze events than in prior freeze years. The industry is confident there is a sufficient level of harvested and undamaged fruit to supply the market.

To help ensure adequate market supplies of mandarins, Imperial County farmer Joe Colace Jr. said he would be bringing in helicopters to stir the night air over mandarin groves and keep temperatures up. He said temperatures could dip into the mid-20s this week, more than cold enough to damage mandarins.

Freezing temperatures also are slowing harvest of winter vegetables because crews have to wait until it's warm enough to cut and pack, which shortens work days. There will be some damage to the winter vegetables and probably tight supplies going to Eastern markets, Colace said.

In the Sacramento Valley, Samuel Sanchez, owner of Orange Blossom Ranch in Orland, said he is at risk of losing his entire orange crop because of freezing temperatures.

In 2011 and 2012, Sanchez lost his crop to freeze damage and faces the risk again in 2013. He is currently irrigating to help prevent his oranges from freezing.

"I was changing my water on all different sections to try to protect my trees," he said. "I've got Chandler walnuts, young trees planted last April, so I've been working pretty hard all night to take care of my orchards," he said.

In Kern County, tree crop farmer Mike Young said the freezing temperatures may offer some benefits to fruit and nut growers because the trees require chill hours and they've gotten plenty during the past two weeks. He also said pest pressure is often lower during growing seasons after a freeze event.

Citrus is another matter, Young said. With temperatures that have dropped into the 20s overnight, there will be citrus damage, but it may be a couple of weeks until the extent is known.

At Belmont Nursery in Fresno, owner Jon Reelhorn said he has done everything he can think of to plan for the possibility of plant-killing cold.

"We've been spending days covering plants with frost protection fabric and we've been moving plants into greenhouses," Reelhorn said. "We'll have some damage and that will set us back. Usually we can save plants, but we need to prune and allow them to regrow. That means taking more time before plants are ready for market.

"For us, it's the added labor costs that come with these freeze events that are hard to plan for," Reelhorn said.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.