Environment
6:59 pm
Thu December 5, 2013

Cold Snap Could Be A One-Two Punch To Valley Citrus Industry

The Arctic chill that swept into the region Wednesday is causing the San Joaquin Valley’s $2-billion citrus industry to shudder in fear over of what could become a devastating loss to the industry if evening temperatures continue to plummet. FM89’s Ezra David reports on what one Valley grower is doing to combat the freeze.

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James McFarland grows citrus east of Clovis.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

James McFarland’s eyes are sleepy and red.

“I’ve been out for most of the night for the past two nights and it looks like that will occur for four or five more,” McFarland says.

The Fresno County citrus farmer has 480 acres of Valencia’s, tangelos and mandarins. He intends to warm his orchards with 61 wind turbines and sprinklers.

An Arctic storm blew into the region this week dropped temperatures to as low as 23 degrees in his orchard on Thursday morning. And it’s only expected to get colder this evening.

“The combination of Arctic air coming down from the north and very dry air coming from the north that’s the double whammy,” says Sean Boyd, a lecturer at Fresno State who teaches weather and climate.

Cold snaps aren’t unusual for the region; in fact cold air is good for citrus as long as temperatures don’t consistently fall below 28 degrees. But the timing of this storm and the one following it early next week could be a one-two punch to the region’s citrus industry.

"I've been out for most of the night for the past two nights and it looks like that will occur for four or five more." James McFarland

Ryan Jacobsen with the Fresno County Farm Bureau says that on Tuesday and Wednesday night, most growers likely escaped significant losses.

“Although, it’s kind of looking forward to see what’s coming the next few nights and potentially a week to 10 days out there’s another cold storm coming in,” Jacobsen says.

The problem with a cold front blowing in early is that there’s a lot of fruit still on the trees.

“We’re still fairly early in the season, so with almost 85% of the crop still on the trees there’s a lot of fruit at risk if the weather turns severe,” says Bob Blakely, with the trade association California Citrus Mutual.

Credit Joe Moore / Valley Public Radio

He says that high sugar content in crops this year may  protect the industry, because sugar in fruit acts like antifreeze in a car. But even so, growers are wary.

McFarland and his crew will spend the next week fighting to keep his citrus crop from freezing. He says he has already lost parts of his most vulnerable citrus variety, mandarins, which have a thin skin.

“One of my supervisors told me that he cut some ice, he sliced the end of an orange off and he was actually seeing white ice in the flesh of the fruit,” McFarland says. “And that’s an indicator that the cells will die, the juice will rot and that will become an inedible piece of fruit.”

Growers across the valley will spend the next couple of nights monitoring temperatures in the coldest parts of their properties and slicing fruit to see freeze levels.

These same farmers have their fingers crossed in hope that the citrus industry escapes the damage left by past freezes.

"We've just got remain vigilant and evaluate when it passes." Bob Blakely

Once again Sean Boyd.

“I can rattle off a few years where there have been devastating freezes to the citrus industry here in Central California: 1913, 1932, 1949, 1972, 1978, 1990, and 1998,” Boyd says.

He says this year’s freeze sounds familiar.

“December 1998 seems to be very close to what is happening now,” Boyd says. “Not only the cold air, but the potential – Friday and Saturday – of accumulating snow on the Valley floor that is currently in the forecast.”   

The 1998 freeze rocked the region, costing the citrus industry more than $600 million and hundreds if not thousands of jobs. 

For now Citrus Mutual reports only light damage to the crop, but that could change.

“We’ve just got remain vigilant and evaluate when it passes,” Blakely says.

The total damage the hard freeze could inflict on the industry won’t be known for three to four weeks.