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Citrus Prices Soaring After Calif. Freeze

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Tuesday in 10 counties following a string of subfreezing nights that destroyed up to three-quarters of the California citrus crop, and industry officials said shoppers will feel the sting, with prices for oranges, lemons, avocados and other produce poised to soar in coming weeks.

The declaration, announced during the governor's visit to a Fresno orange grove, authorizes the state's Office of Emergency Services and agriculture secretary to seek aid from the federal government to offset losses to California growers and other businesses. The state of emergency applies to Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura counties.

Nearly every winter crop is affected by the freeze, from avocados to strawberries to fresh-cut flowers, but it's the state's citrus crop that stands to take the biggest economic hit.

"We may adjust the prices as we discover the full extent of the damage next week, but for now, if you bought an orange at the supermarket for 50 cents, expect to pay a dollar to $1.49 for it," said Todd Steel, owner of Royal Vista Marketing, which sells California citrus to markets throughout the country.

With the NFL playoffs in full swing, some fans may choose to go without two traditional favorites.

"Avocados are expensive enough as it is," said Joseph Vasquez, a 32-year-old school teacher from Pasadena. "We may have to do without guacamole for a while. And we may be drinking our Coronas without limes."

California is the nation's No. 1 producer of fresh citrus, growing about 86 percent of lemons and 21 percent of oranges sold in the United States, according to the California Farm Bureau. Florida produces more oranges, but those are mostly processed for orange juice.

More than 70 percent of this season's oranges, lemons and tangerines — nearly $1 billion worth of fruit — were still on the trees as nighttime temperatures in California's Central Valley dipped into the low 20s and teens on four straight nights beginning Friday. The freeze ruined as much as three-quarters of the California citrus crop, growers say; the fruit is threatened whenever the mercury falls below 28 degrees.

"Limited amounts were harvested before the freeze, so it's not like the markets are going to dry up suddenly," said Claire Smith, a spokeswoman for Sunkist Growers Inc., a Los Angeles-based cooperative owned by some 6,000 growers in California and Arizona.

Still, the diminished supply is bound to drive up prices, Smith said. Sunkist may import oranges and other fruit from South Africa and other countries.

On Tuesday, a Visalia-based citrus broker was selling 40-pound boxes of oranges for $22 to $32, depending on the variety. That's up from $6 to $14 a week earlier, and with the National Weather Service calling for at least one more night of frigid temperatures in many areas, prices could continue to escalate.

Some shoppers took advantage of still-reasonable prices Tuesday, as many of the fruit on market shelves was picked before the freeze. Shopper Lindsay Beamish, 29, was surprised to see a 10-pound bag of oranges selling for $10 at a Vons supermarket in Pasadena.

"I might just have to get 10 pounds worth because that's not going to last," she said of the price.

Damages from the current freeze will likely surpass those from a three-day cold snap in December 1998 that destroyed 85 percent of California's citrus crop, a loss valued at $700 million, state Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura said.

The state also suffered a deep freeze in 1990 — one that completely wiped out the $1 billion crop. It took growers two years to recover.

Labor leaders are also watching the weather closely. They estimate as many as 12,000 field workers and packing house employees could lose their jobs for the remainder of the season.

Damaged fruit from the current freeze may still be salvaged as juice, usually a byproduct for California farmers, Smith said.

"It's not likely to have a big impact on the juice industry because California is not a big player in that market," she said.

Inspectors with the California Department of Agriculture and county agriculture commissioners were still assessing the damage Tuesday. In the meantime, fruit packers have been asked to keep produce harvested during the freeze on hold for five days to monitor quality problems and keep damaged fruit off shelves.

Inflated prices also are expected for other crops that have fallen victim to the icy weather, state agricultural officials said.

Lee Cole, chief of Santa Paula-based Calavo Growers Inc., which sells 35 to 40 percent of the state's $380 million avocado crop, said it's too early to know how severe the losses will be. But the freeze could claim up to 40 percent of Calavo's crop in Ventura County, with damage along the less-frigid coast between San Luis Obispo and Escondido hovering between 25 and 35 percent, Cole said.

"Prices will certainly be higher," he said.

If the damage is severe, the trees also could bear fewer avocados next year, Cole said.

Strawberries growing along the Southern California coast were mostly ruined, according to the California Strawberry Commission. The freeze also destroyed flowers that would produce the next berry crop. Production will be disrupted for the next few weeks, according to the commission.

Growers in the Imperial Valley also were worried about tender vegetables like lettuce, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Throughout the cold snap, growers have tried to save their crops by pumping fields with heated irrigation water and running wind machines to circulate warmer air and keep it from rising off the trees.

For cut-flower producers, the damage mostly will be felt in the form of increased heating costs, said Kathryn Miele, director of marketing for the California Cut Flower Commission, which represents several hundred growers.

Many flowers — including the Valentine's Day rose crop — are pampered indoors, meaning growers are forced to spend more to keep greenhouses balmy, she said.

David Pruitt, of Ball Tagawa Growers in Arroyo Grande, has struggled to keep 200,000 square feet of greenhouses between 60 and 74 degrees.

The company, which produces a variety of seedlings, including pansies and marigolds, heats its greenhouses with hot water fired by gas boilers. The cold "multiplies our gas use enormously," Pruitt said. The boilers "are just cranking full blast."

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