Post-freeze assessments of California citrus damage caused by the January polar express slightly melted the frozen sweat on the brow of many citrus growers and industry leaders. Losses are less than originally feared.

Meanwhile, California citrus leaders were in Washington D.C., in mid-February meeting with the holders of federal purse strings, lobbying leaders to quickly approve federal disaster relief dollars and gain President Bush’s approval to sign a disaster relief bill for growers and workers.

Meanwhile, growers with varying levels of crop insurance are eyeing claims on their federal crop insurance coverage to carry them and their full time workers into the next season.

California Citrus Mutual (CCM) President Joel Nelsen and other agricultural leaders were in Washington working to gain quick passage of federal financial assistance for frostbit citrus growers.

“We expect assistance will be something coming down (from Congress),” Nelsen said. “Federal assistance would not make citrus growers financially whole, but allow them to bridge the gap between crop insurance dollars and the needed costs to grow a crop in the coming year.”

The CCM is holding to its original freeze-related estimate of an $800 million citrus loss with about half of the dollar loss in Navels. Of the 70 percent of the Navels on the tree when the freeze hit, about 80 percent were lost, according to CCM director of grower services Bob Blakely.

“We are hearing reports that packinghouses continue to find marketable fruit and may have about 12 million cartons of packable Navels to sell possibly into April,” Blakely said. “We are exporting 20-25 percent of the fruit that is packable quality.”

The foothills of Fresno and Tulare counties are where the best post-freeze fruit has been found. Colder temperatures draped over the Central Valley floor damaging or destroying more fruit. In many places it was a total wipeout.

Blakely said, “As an industry, we were 20-30 percent picked. Some growers were 100 percent picked and did not lose anything. Then there were growers who lost 100 percent.”

Navel prices

In mid-February Blakely said Navel prices were in the $19-25 per box range for fancy grade, “The worst thing that can happen from the growers’ standpoint is having good quality fruit out there and not have it accepted or sold in the market,” he said.

While 80-90 percent packout (fresh) is considered normal in California citrus, the freeze flip-flopped use from 50 percent to75 percent for juice and the rest fresh. Juice costs basically cover getting fruit off the tree. Blakely said bottlenecked juice plants are running 24/7, but no fruit to his knowledge had been turned away.

Lemon losses depended on location, with an 80 percent reduction in the Central Valley and a 20 percent loss in the large lemon-growing area of Ventura County. The areas will supply adequate lemons through September.

Then the desert areas of Riverside and Imperial counties will come into production. But Blakely said those areas experienced not only high lemon losses and trees killed by the frost.

Sunkist perspective

Sunkist spokesperson Claire Smith said, “We were hearing initially 70 percent of the crop was still on the tree and of that 50 percent was destroyed. We don’t think it was quite that much. There are some pockets where good fruit has been found in the Central Valley’s old citrus belt in the Woodlake, Ivanhoe, and Exeter areas.” Growers are using black light techniques to detect and separate freeze-damaged fruit.

While substantial amounts of citrus was lost, oranges seemed to fare the best including the Cara Cara, Blood, Minneolas and Pomelo varieties.

“Growers had a week’s warning of the freeze so they harvested a lot of excellent quality fruit that was put in the packinghouses and sent out. We are now running out of the earlier picked fruit,” Smith said.

She said citrus prices doubled after the freeze.

Usually about 80 percent of Sunkist fruit is marketed fresh and 20 percent juiced. Sunkist has juice plants in Tipton, Calif., and Ontario, Calif. Due to the freeze, the plants were squeezing fruit 24/7 – oranges at the Tipton plant and lemons in Ontario. Due to heavy orange losses, the Ontario plant was also juicing oranges.

“We don’t know if Valencias were severely damaged by the freeze because of their small size. It will take several months to determine,” Smith said.

Citrus trees planted in the last couple of years were the most susceptible to freeze damage.

Grower perspective

“Several weeks after the freeze we were pleasantly surprised to find more salvageable fruit than we’d expected,” said Gerald Denni, an owner of Golden Valley Citrus Inc. in Tulare County. “We can likely salvage 35 percent of the remaining fruit on the trees.”

Lower solids were the survival factor in Navels as temperatures ranged from 18-28 degrees across the 2,000-acre operation spread through Exeter, Lindsay, Porterville, and Strathmore. “We will have fruit through May.”

“On Valencia, the jury is still out as harvesting will begin in mid-April to early May. We just have to wait to determine the actual damage,” Denni said.

Denni calculated a $18 million to $20 million loss in gross sales.

Denni summarized, “These disasters occur. It’s not like the end of the world when we get a freeze but it takes time to heal and move on.”

Denni said market prices were $16-$22 a carton for various sized and graded navels. The major challenge is assuring the nation’s consumers California growers have good citrus to sell. Denni equaled the Jan. ’07 freeze to the icy blast of ’98-’99. Yet both freezes slacked to the ’90-’91 freeze that killed trees 10-20 years old. A third generation farmer, Denni has grown citrus for 34 years.

The human impact of the freeze concerns Denni. The freeze descended at peak harvest with 160 workers in the field and 95 in the packinghouse. “We’ve kept harvesting crews busy for the last few weeks field juicing in blocks that didn’t survive the freeze. Now we are slowly moving back into areas to be picked without separating. Two to three weeks of fruit remain in those blocks,” Denni noted.

The harvest crew normally slims to 60 in the summer months. Those who leave work grapes and tree fruit, and then return to Golden Valley Citrus to work Navels in the fall.

At the packinghouse, weekly hours for the 95 employees except supervisors have shrunk from six, 10-hour days to two, 8-hour days.

Denni said, “While employees rely on us for employment, we rely on them as well. We have as much concern for their job status as they do.”

email: cblake@farmpress.com