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Originally published Monday, January 14, 2013 at 7:46 PM

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Cold snap threatens California oranges, Arizona lettuce

An extreme cold snap in parts of the Western U.S. is damaging orange crops in California and lettuce in Arizona.

The Associated Press

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FRESNO, Calif. — As an unusual cold spell gripped parts of the West for a fifth day on Monday, some California citrus growers reported damage to crops and an agriculture official said national prices on lettuce have started to rise because of lost produce in Arizona.

The extreme chill in the West comes as the eastern U.S., from Atlanta to New York City, is seeing springlike weather.

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, where farmers are fighting to protect about $1.5 billion worth of citrus fruit on their trees, Sunday temperatures dropped to 25 degrees in some areas and stayed low longer than previous nights.

Prolonged temperatures in the mid-20s or below cause damage to citrus crops.

“It was our coldest night to date,” said Paul Story of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, an association of the state’s 3,900 citrus growers. “I think mandarin growers are going to see a range of significant damage, enough that they will have to separate their crops.”

Mandarins are more susceptible to cold than other citrus and start to freeze at about 32 degrees, Story said. Because many mandarin trees were planted in recent years as the fruit’s popularity soared, they are grown in colder areas outside the traditional citrus belt.

Other citrus crops saw little or minimal damage, Story said. This year’s high sugar content in oranges helped protect them, he said, because sugar inhibits freezing.

Growers deployed wind machines to keep the warm air closer to the ground, and irrigation to raise the temperature in the groves.

And farmers were on the hook for a fifth cold night: A freeze warning remained in effect until 10 a.m. Tuesday for central California.

Temperatures Monday in downtown Los Angeles fell to 34 degrees, breaking the previous record of 36 degrees set on Jan. 14, 2007.

To the east, freezing temperatures already have done enough damage to southwestern Arizona lettuce crops that prices are increasing, said Kurt Nolte, a Yuma, Ariz.-based agricultural agent for the University of Arizona.

The area provides much of the nation’s leafy greens during the winter, and farmers are reporting damage to many romaine and iceberg lettuce crops. The cold is freezing the heads of the lettuce and affecting the quality and yield, Nolte said.

The price for a carton of lettuce in Yuma two weeks ago was $7 to $8. As of Monday, it cost around $20 per carton, he said.

Metropolitan Phoenix marked one of its coolest stretches since 1988, and Sunday morning’s low of 7 degrees in Douglas, Ariz., broke a record for January in the Mexican border town.

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