Citrus growers spent more money on frost protection this year than the last five years combined, said Tom Avinelis of AgriCare.

Avinelis noted dew points were much lower this year and that means more frost. Traditionally warmer areas had some of the lowest temperatures while noted colder areas were warmer. That varied from night to night, he added.

Growers discovered mandarins sustained significant damage at temperatures that don’t affect navels. This prompted growers to start wind machines at 31 degrees, higher than they would for navels, Avinelis said.

Using fan jet or micro sprinklers combined with wind machines gave the crop a better chance of turning back the frost, he noted.

Even though freezing temperatures didn’t affect navels to the same extent of the mandarins, achieving higher sugar levels held the crop back, said Tony Lombardi, general manager of Porterville Citrus.

“This was one of the most difficult years. Sugar levels were all over the board,” he said. That situation continued into February. Sizes were also smaller. On the bright side, packers and growers knew they were dealing with a crop that was 10 percent lighter than last year’s crop.

The start of the navel season was difficult with the erratic sugar levels, plus an overlap with Valencias and imports impacting the East Coast.

Bates said navel packers are ahead of the game at this point of the season because of the smaller crop. The challenge is selling small fruit domestically, he said. Decreased mandarin volume created opportunities for navel sales. April should be strong, Bates said, as exports to Korea kick in. There are limited export markets for mandarins, he added, with Australia and Japan taking more fruit.

Marketing mandarins after a freeze is risky. Lots that aren’t rejected initially may still have questionable fruit. Nevertheless, Berry said packers must strive to keep damaged fruit off the market.

With 25,000 acres of Murcotts in the ground, protecting markets is vital, Bates agreed. If packers start sending marginal quality fruit, the industry will lose market.

“We want to maintain label integrity so you have to make some tough decisions with growers,” Berry said.