Fruit, vegetable crops ravaged as bitter cold sets record lows in California

December 24, 1990|By Los Angeles Times

The California cold snap has caused major damage to the state's $8 billion fruit and vegetable industry, destroying substantial portions of the citrus crop and affecting lettuce, broccoli, avocado and artichoke crops from San Diego in the south to Santa Cruz in the north, experts say.

Consumers will almost certainly face sharp price increases at grocery produce departments, and growers are exhausted from several nights of trying in vain to raise temperatures in their fields by means of wind, fire, water and even a sprayed-on plastic coating.

At least one death was attributed to the cold snap, a transient who died of hypothermia in Anaheim. Authorities in the Orange County city did not release further details.

The chill continued for a third day throughout the state. The overnight temperature at the Los Angeles Civic Center, 34 degrees, was one degree warmer than the all-time low for Dec. 23.

Record lows for the date were set elsewhere: in Riverside, 22, and in San Diego, 36.

In Bakersfield, the low reached 18, with temperatures below 25 for 12 hours. In the Bay Area, new records were set in San Francisco (a reading of 31) and Oakland (26 at the airport).

Shelters for the homeless were once more filled to capacity.

From the San Fernando Valley to San Francisco, water pipes burst, and plumbers reported running low on insulation and pipe. Santa Cruz County officials declared a state of emergency, with hundreds of residents reporting frozen and broken pipes, and many going without water.

Meteorologists expect the arctic air mass that has been hovering over California to dissipate over the next two days.

Meanwhile, farmers will take the measure of their losses. The Los Angeles County administrative office anticipated millions of dollars in agricultural damage.

"It's the most extensive damage I've seen, ever," said Clark Briggs, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, a private organization representing about 45,000 farmers.

Several experts predicted that supermarket prices will rise by at least 50 percent for California navel oranges and winter vegetables.

The most devastating agricultural damage was apparently in the central portion of the state.

"Citrus is essentially wiped out in the San Joaquin Valley," said National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Gudgel, who surveyed growers in the region, where about 200,000 acres are planted. He said 70 percent of the harvest was still on the tree in Fresno and Tulare counties, with 50 percent unharvested in Kern County. Wide variations were found -- some growers' crops were nearly all picked, others had not yet begun.

One grower in the Fowler-Sanger area, southeast of Fresno, said a navel orange he tested "was so frozen I had to put it on the ground" to try to cut through it. "I was sawing through it like a baseball.

"Last night was the killer night," said the grower, Richard Berberian, a veteran farmer. "The navel is gone. The Valencias are gone, the Mineolas are gone, the lemons are gone."

Or, as grower Tom Mulholland described the Orange Belt in the east end of the valley near the Sierra foothills: "We're declaring a 100 percent crop failure." He estimated that at least 80 percent of the area's fruit froze in the fields.

Keith Nilmeier said he expects to lose his $90,000 investment in this year's citrus crop, grown on 400 acres near Fresno.

"My swimming pool . . . is a solid sheet of ice," he said. "If I wanted weather like this, I would have moved to the Midwest."

Citrus trees, especially those under 3 years old, also appear damaged, which could lead to significant long-term losses. Growers said the next two weeks will provide evidence of life or death. If the bark splits, the tree will not survive.

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