At least one California citrus grower is augmenting his arsenal of freeze prevention tools following January’s severe freeze that battered the industry and caused an estimated $800 million in losses. If the freeze wasn’t bad enough, limited propane supplies made matters worse — some propane-powered wind machines on farms went silent from the lack of fuel.

The scant propane supplies were held for public use such as hospitals and schools. Farmers were cut off, orchards grew colder, and fruit was damaged. Booth Ranches LLC in Orange Cove, Calif., is determined to prevent another propane shortfall.

“We lost an orange ranch because we didn’t have enough propane to cover the entire acreage,” said Tom Valenzuela, Booth sales manager. “We had to choose which blocks to protect and which to disregard. Because of the propane shortage, we lost 320 acres of Navel and Valencia oranges.”

He estimated the citrus loss on that acreage at several million dollars, or about 256,000 40-pound boxes of fruit.

The citrus ranch has two 30,000-gallon propane tanks, but two more are on order. The mega-tanks are an expensive but necessary tool to shield the citrus business from the impact of future freezes and potentially unavailable wintertime propane supplies.

Last winter, Booth Ranches ran its wind machines for 30 days straight, starting in December through the January freeze period. Irrigated water provided frost protection.

Booth Ranches is California’s third largest independent grower/shipper. The ranch includes 8,000 acres, including about 5,000 acres of citrus in various stages of production. Olives are grown on 700 acres.

Founded in 1957 by Otis Booth, Booth Ranches is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The company grows citrus in Orange Cove, Ivanhoe, Porterville, and Maricopa, Calif.

More freeze protection

In addition to propane tanks, Booth is also installing more wind machines to protect acreage during future freezes. The machines sell for over $20,000. More wells are also on the post-freeze purchase order. During the freeze, the ranch lacked sufficient water to rapidly saturate the soil. Well costs can range from $50,000 to $200,000, Valenzuela said. Current water sources on the ranch include well water, plus state and federal district water.

“We’re in this thing for the long haul. We want to be a premium shipper of Navel and Valencia oranges for the next 25 years. We’re investing this money to ensure that we’re at the top of the heap with quality and moving forward.”

Booth packout numbers

On the Navel side, Booth’s post-freeze packout totaled about one million cartons, down from the typical 2.2 million cartons.

“We were able to pack fresh about 50 percent of the navels. In a normal year 85 percent is the packout. We packed fruit into the middle of April for the export market. Fruit quality was excellent with no signs of frost damage.”

As the Valencia harvest continues, Booth expects a 200,000 packout with the balance sent to processors for juicing. By-products are handled through Ventura Coastal, Visalia, Calif., and Vita-Pakt, Covina, Calif. Booth’s normal Valencia packout is about 700,000 cartons. The Valencia harvest should continue until early September.

Freeze summary

“We expected zero boxes of citrus after the January freeze,” Valenzuela said. “After one freezing morning, everyone in the entire valley thought we wouldn’t harvest a single orange.”

Valenzuela believes three factors helped save citrus: the severe cold snap occurred a month later than the last freeze; the brix or sugar in the fruit was higher than normal; and earlier winter season cold snaps helped condition the trees to the cold.

“Every freeze event is different. As soon as you think you know something, Mother Nature will come back, grab you, and teach you that you don’t know anything. There’s no rhyme or reason — there were some blocks that were spared 10 trees in and beyond that they were frozen.”

Valenzuela has 25 years experience in the citrus industry.

He said the traditional orange-growing areas — the foothills including Exeter, Lindsay, Ivanhoe, Woodlake, and Orange Cove — were relatively spared from the worst cold.

“The citrus pioneers who developed this area knew they had to be on warm ground.”

Current, next year’s crop

The 2007 Valencias are smaller this year, Valenzuela noted, due to the 2006 summer heat wave and the cold weather in 2007. “This combination gave us a mixed bag, but we’re now seeing some fruit growth.”

It’s too early to determine how the freeze will impact next year’s citrus crop. Navels and Valencias typically have a June drop cycle. Standing by a Navel tree, Valenzuela examined the fruit and said, “Looks like we’ll have a good sized crop but not overproduction. It appears fruit size will be good, but we have a long way to go before harvest. We’re off to a pretty good start.”

Booth Ranches exports about 40 percent of its citrus crop to Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.

Email: cblake@farmpress.com