California citrus growers with fruit left to save will continue looking at thermometers this weekend and running water to protect against frost.

However, they also now will cast a wishful eye toward roads into their groves, looking for propane trucks to refill fuel tanks so they can re-start wind machine idled by a statewide propane shortage that is adding insult to an already severely injured killer frost-embattled citrus industry.

Without wind machines, the few with fruit not yet destroyed by frost, will be fighting a battle with one hand tied behind.

Thousands of wind machines are expected to remain as still as the air they are supposed to stir around over the weekend and maybe into next week because the demand for propane is exceeding the supplies as California continues to shiver under a blanket of artic air draped over the state for more than a week ago like an ugly, cheap suit.

The silence of the wind machines could be like a heart-wrenching hammer slam into the final nail in a coffin of a 2006-07 citrus season.

“There are millions of dollars of marketable fruit still on trees in California, and the propane industry cannot provide fuel to save it. It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Shirley Batchman, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual.

A frustrated and angry Batchman said, “The propane industry knew this cold weather was coming, and it should have been prepared,” she added.

Lesley Garland, vice president, Western Propane Gas Association in Sacramento was sympathetic, but blamed the weather: “unprecedented cold weather over an unprecedented stretch of time creating demand outweighed by supplies.”

Distributors are trucking or railing propane into California from as far away as Chicago and Canada to meet the demand for propane in California. Garland admitted there is not adequate propane storage in California to meet demand like the industry has seen over the past week.

The situation has been exasperated by rules governing the number of hours a propane tanker driver can be behind the wheel.

To transport propane, the driver must have a special license and drive for only 12 hours before resting. “The California Highway Patrol has given us a special exemption for our drivers to be on the road for 14 hours rather than 12. However, he can drive only 80 hours over an eight-day period,” she explained. This is limiting the number of hours drivers are available.

She said distributors are making “tough decisions” about supplies and deliveries.

She did not use the word “allocate,” but that is obviously what the industry is doing, allocating short supplies to homes, hospitals, nursing homes and livestock operations like poultry houses and cutting off citrus growers who need fuel to power wind machines.

“The industry has been spending $3.1 million per night to protect fruit not damaged so far, and now we have to deal with this: an industry (propane) ill-prepared to deal with the catastrophic freeze events we are seeing,” said Batchman, who said the vast majority of wind machines are propane powered. The rest are diesel or electric powered.

California Citrus Mutual has begun contacting the governor’s office and other politicians to see if the government can help in getting additional propane for farmers.

In the meantime, growers with any propane left in tanks will be throttling back on wind machine blade speeds and starting them later into the evening hours. When that runs out, the blade will stop spinning.

The forecast for last night (Thursday) was from 27 to 32 degrees in most areas. However, it is forecast to get colder over the weekend with temperatures predicted to drop into the low 20s Sunday and Monday. Citrus is damaged at about 28 degrees and below, unless it is protected.

“The propane industry is doing all it can given the circumstances. We are encouraging growers to remain in contact with their distributors,” said Garland.

“If there is a specific orchard or area where there is still fruit to save, we are encouraging growers to tell their suppliers where they need what limited propane supplies are available,” said Garland.

Another possibility is transferring propane from tanks in an orchard already destroyed by the frost or a wind machine not used for other reason. However, Garland said that requires special equipment and should be done by a distributor.

email: hcline@farmpress.com