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California citrus crop escapes frost damage

The much-feared devastating freezing temperatures didn’t quite materialize in California’s San Joaquin Valley over the last few nights, and consequently the California citrus crop experienced little damage.

Below-freezing temperatures did prevail for several nights, necessitating the use of frost-protection tools, but the needle didn’t drop low enough or the cold hang around long enough to produce serious damage.

For damage to occur to Mandarin oranges on the tree, temperatures need to stay below 32 degrees for at least four hours. Navel oranges, with their thicker skin, typically don’t experience much damage until temperatures drop to the mid-20s for that four-hour threshold.

Many citrus-growing areas did see temperatures drop into the 20s but only for short periods of time. And most growers were able to use wind machines and irrigation systems to raised grove temperatures a few degrees during critical periods.

On the morning of Jan. 1, California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen said that growers had survived what ended up being the worst of the nights.

"Growers initiated frost protection by 10 p.m. (the night before) in most cases,” he said. "No doubt the early start helped keep temperatures higher throughout the night and with lows not reaching 26 degrees, except in the coldest unprotected areas, we conclude it was a long night but a safe night."

He added that producers of Mandarins and lemons ran their equipment for about 10 hours that night, with Navel orange growers needing about six hours of frost-protection action.

Some of the areas that typically get the coldest have already been harvested.

"Thirty days makes a difference," Nelsen said. “Last season a major freeze event occurred the first week of December, thereby creating much more vulnerability for the industry. The past 30 days significant tonnage was harvested from those historic areas of low temperatures, thereby eliminating potential loss."

The lower cost of fuel this year also helped in the battle as the cost of running the wind machines was considerably less than a year ago.

As the new year dawned, warmer temperatures were in the forecast for the next week and citrus harvest and packing operations were expected to return to normal levels.

The crop estimate for the 2014-15 Navel orange season is 78 million cartons in the San Joaquin Valley and another 5 million cartons in Southern California. Approximately 25 percent of the orange crop has been harvested.

Mandarin tonnage is estimated to be 50 million five-pound cartons this year and approximately 70 percent of the crop remains on the tree.

The California lemon crop has been estimated at 45 million cartons with the vast majority of the lemon tonnage in Ventura County and still on the tree.