As the bone-chilling Artic blast blew its frozen breath beyond California’s agricultural Mecca eastward toward the nation’s ‘Winter Salad Bowl’ in Yuma, Ariz., open fields of lettuce and other salad fixings took the first hit but kept standing.

“Head lettuce is very resilient in extreme cold temperatures while romaine gets beat up pretty good,” said Yuma vegetable grower John Boelts. “Some vegetables were ruined but most took the cold hit fairly well. Cold snaps lasting two weeks don’t usually cause extensive damage, but longer cold spells take a heftier toll.”

While unofficial temperatures 40 miles east of Yuma along the Gila River dropped under 10 degrees, temperatures in the 20s nipped the Yuma earth crops. Freezing fields separated harvest crews from plucking ripe product until the warmer noontime hour. Half-day work reduced vegetable supplies from field to market. News of resulting higher vegetable prices pleased Boelts.

“Fresh vegetable markets have been depressed for the last few years. Now we’re hoping to make some money back.”

With bragging rights in tow, Yuma vegetable growers produce 80 percent of the U.S. winter vegetable supply for salads.

In the Yuma mesa citrus groves owned by Bill and Mark Spencer of Associated Citrus Packers (ACP), 20 degrees was the lowest thermometer sighting. The testy blast forced the Spencers to send citrus pickers packing for home amid cold orchards and damaged and ruined fruit.

“We’ve lost about half of our minneola crop,” said Mark Spencer. “We were in the early stages of harvest with about 80 percent ripe for picking when the freezing weather took it away.”

The winter crop killer wiped out the independent grower/packer’s remaining unpicked lemon crop (25 percent). The harvest was launched in August amid a toasty 110 degrees - a 90-degree difference from January.

“If the freeze had occurred in December, the entire lemon crop would have been lost,” Spencer noted.

Thick-skinned grapefruit were unharmed.

One-hundred-twenty orchard-lined wind machines and irrigation waters successfully tempered temperatures and hydrated trees. But cutting to the chase was the Spencer’s bottom line – a guesstimated $1 million - $1.5 million grower loss.

Unlike California, propane supplies were plentiful. “There seems to be plenty of propane (for wind machines) but you have to wait in line to get it,” said Spencer. Propane powered two-thirds of the Spencers’ machines with gasoline fueling the rest.

Whether the cold jeopardized tree quality was the long-term concern.

“We’re more concerned with tree condition and setting next year’s crop,” Spencer stated. “The next step beyond (leaf) defoliation is the potential damage to the wood at the small to medium branch level. The longer the freeze then the more damage to the tree’s health.” The bloom time around in March is when damage to lemon trees will be revealed.

In the citrus groves west of Phoenix organic grower DeWayne Justice was dealt an unthinkable, ill-conceived cheap extra shot during the freeze period. Thieves stole his ability to irrigate to boost orchard temperatures and save fruit.

When Justice triggered the switch to activate the irrigation pump, nothing happened. Thieves had stolen about 200 feet of copper from inside the pump and running to the transformer. No power meant no water and an open invite to Mother Nature’s impending damage.

“The thieves likely received about $300 for the copper on the resale market (scrap yard). The pump repair will cost me from $5,000 - $20,000. With the fruit loss, this is just unbelievable,” Justice said.

With nary a lemon picked, the cold indeed robbed 100 percent of the yellow crop, where the low bowed to 23 degrees at the Justice Brothers Ranch in Waddell. Cut lemons yielded crystals, a quick sign of fruit turning to mush. Likely a total loss was the minneola crop. The damage report on navel oranges and grapefruit would be determined in two weeks.

For Justice, there was just mega injustice - ripping cold and robbers ripping him off. Yet he dug deep to capture the passion that miraculously motivates farmers through adversity.

“The leaves may be lost to the freeze, but I think the trees will survive.”

Saved orchard

At the 110-acre Orange Patch farm in Mesa, owner Allen Freeman will remain in the biz in 2008.

“The wind machines and flood irrigation raised the orchard temperatures from 28 to 32. That is the only reason I am selling oranges today,” said the citrus grower of 33 years.

But he also placed laurels on ongoing hedging and tree-topping practices to improve wind flow. While some growers no longer hedging and topping, Freeman has stayed true.

“Once a blockage is created, there is nowhere to blow the cold air. Wind machines become virtually ineffective.”

He credited salvage of the navel orange crop to planting in an isolated block combined with three wind machines powered by diesel fuel.

“So far we haven’t found any bad navels. When you get outside of that loop, it looks like a blowtorch hit the trees.” Navel branches lacked brown coloring so Freeman predicted a strong comeback in the spring. If the fruitwood is good, blossoms will sprout in the spring.

Freeman lost 100 percent of the unpicked lemons and clementines.

To better protect his investment in the future, he will apply a frost guard product. “I don’t know another grower using this in Arizona because it’s been so warm here.”

email: cblake@farmpress.com