Freezing cold threatens more Calif. crops

December 31, 1990|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- The cold snap that has devastated this year's California citrus crop could also dramatically curtail the number of lemons, oranges and avocados produced next year, farmers and agricultural officials said yesterday.

Some farmers expect their citrus production to be half of normal next year because the persistent cold weather is killing young orange and lemon trees and decimating new growth on older citrus trees.

Avocado production in Tulare County is likely to be wiped out completely for 1991, said the county agricultural commissioner, Lenord Craft. Tulare farms about 11,000 acres of avocados -- about a $3 million annual crop.

"We are looking at not even having an avocado crop in Tulare next year," Mr. Craft said.

Farmers interviewed yesterday said that they were no longer trying to save this year's fruit. What was still on the trees -- which, for navel oranges, was roughly 80 percent of the crop -- was nearly all lost, farmers said.

"I didn't pick an orange," said Keith Nilmeier, a Fresno citrus grower. "We gave up on our field."

Farmers said they were now concentrating on saving ther trees.

If the trees die in great numbers it could have a long-range effect on the state's fruit production and its economy. California produces roughly half the nation's fruit and vegetables, supporting a $17.5 billion industry.

Already the economic toll of the recent freeze is expected to top $1 billion. Oranges and lemons worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been destroyed. Acres upon acres of broccoli, artichokes and celery have been destroyed. Roughly 15,000 Northern California farm workers are expected to lose their jobs, and innumerable others are losing business in a wide array of related industries such as trucking and shipping.

The effect in future years should be considerably less. But if fruit production is substantially curtailed in 1991, it means fewer jobs for pickers, packers, truckers, crate manufacturers and many others.

The biggest long-range concern is the health of citrus and avocado trees, farmers said. It takes four to five years to bring new trees into full fruit production, so any lost tree sets farmers back for years.

At this point, farmers have no way of knowing how many of their trees will die.

Most believe they won't be able to tally their losses until spring. Yet, many already have seen bark splitting and cracking, which means that the new growth -- which supports next year's crop -- is in jeopardy.

"We have some severe bark-splitting in both the lemons and the oranges," said Lee Bailey, of Bailey Brothers, a large citrus grower in Orange Cove. "We'd be lucky to have half to a third of our crop next year."

And still farmers continue to battle the cold. Although temperatures rose somewhat over the weekend, many areas were still suffering with below-freezing weather. The state capital, Sacramento, posted a record 11th consecutive night of freezing weather.

[Gov. George I. Deukmejian declared a state of emergency in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where the cold had shut down public water systems, the Associated Press reported.

[To the north, a new storm headed into wind-ravaged Washington state with a threat of snow and high wind. The weather service issued another winter storm warning for the Puget Sound area and upgraded a storm watch to a storm warning for north-central and northeastern Washington.

[Friday's storm knocked out power to about 150,000 utility customers from Puget Sound to the British Columbia border. By yesterday morning, Puget Sound Power and Light Co. still had about 16,800 customers without electricity.

[Elsewhere in the nation, flooding forced evacuations and closed roads in Indiana and Ohio.

[Highways were icy across parts of the Plains, and temperatures dipped to numbing lows again yesterday, including a record 23 below zero at Scottsbluff, Neb., 30 below at Rapid City, S.D., a record for the whole month of December, and an unofficial 40 below at Porcupine, S.D. Even Honolulu joined in with an untropical record low of 57.]

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