Cold temperatures in California endanger crops

California's $2 billion citrus industry is threatened by a cold snap that has put a big chill on a normally mild climate.
CBS News

By Carter Evans

(CBS News) EDISON, Calif. - In the orchards and fields of southern California, the race is on to save crops from a potentially disastrous freeze. Temperatures are well below normal in much of the state -- 20 degrees below normal in the Los Angeles basin and parts of San Diego County where they are expecting frost on the beaches. The forecast for Big Sur is for temperatures 20 degrees colder than Boston. Even Palm Springs could see temperatures below freezing. This could mean ruined crops and higher prices for fruits and vegetables across the country.

At a southern California orchard, they couldn't pick oranges fast enough.

"Everybody in the citrus business right now is worried," said grower Ben Taft. "Everybody." He knew that any fruit left on the tree this weekend could be ruined by sub-freezing weather.

However, Taft could harvest only 30 percent of his oranges before the temperature plunged. He acknowledged he stands to lose 70 percent of his crop if there's a hard freeze over the next couple of days.

Ben Taft's grove is just a small part of California's $2 billion citrus industry -- all of it is threatened by a cold snap that has put a big chill on a normally mild climate. At Taft's farm near Bakersfield, it was 26 degrees Saturday morning. On Sunday, it could fall to 19.

"It's the cost of doing business," said Taft. "You enjoy the great times and you suffer through the bad times."

The last "bad time" was six years ago -- a hard freeze that lasted five days. "We lost everything," Taft recalled.

Taft said he won't go down without a fight. He's prepared to fly a helicopter over his crops to keep the air moving around the trees. "A couple of degrees can make a difference."

There is also an economic reality. Taft employs 30 workers and if the freeze destroys his crop, "there's nothing to pack and ship," he said. "The packing house does not operate...that's a cold hard reality."

And a bitter reminder that farming is as much about luck as skill.