CITRUS PRICES RISE AS COLD SPOILS CROPS IN CALIFORNIA

SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY, Calif. (FNS) -- Sharply higher citrus prices have hit stores around the country after record low temperatures in this growing region froze California's citrus crop, already damaged from earlier El Nino-related weather.The latest round of severe weather is responsible for an estimated crop loss of upwards of $600 million, said industry officials. This year's crops were already priced

SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY, Calif. (FNS) -- Sharply higher citrus prices have hit stores around the country after record low temperatures in this growing region froze California's citrus crop, already damaged from earlier El Nino-related weather.

The latest round of severe weather is responsible for an estimated crop loss of upwards of $600 million, said industry officials. This year's crops were already priced higher due to lower crop counts, and the size of the fruit was smaller.

"This freeze is nearing the degree of loss of the Christmas freeze of 1990," said Leonard Craft, agricultural commissioner for Tulare County, one of the areas hit. "This freeze is absolutely devastating to growers, to their workers and to the many small towns dependent on the citrus industry here."

The 1990 freeze caused about an 85% loss to the navel orange crop alone, he added. Now, retail prices could again jump to the 99-cents-per-pound mark due to the latest problems.

"We could see more orange imports from Mexico, Spain and a greater reliance on Florida," said Michael Marks of JC Produce, a Los Angeles-based distributor. "Most of these will be seeded Valencia oranges."

Additionally, a majority, if not all, of the remaining lemon crop has been destroyed, according to California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, Calif. Approximately 80% to 85% of the crop was still on the trees when the cold snap hit. Certain exotics, including the tangerine and mandarin crops, have been devastated, as industry experts estimated that upwards of 75% of these unpicked crops might be worthless.

During a conference call among California state officials and representatives from the seven citrus-growing counties, growers approved a frost-inspection program. Funds have been made available to provide staff who can inspect all fruit harvested after Dec. 21, when the cold descended on the state's primary growing region. Packing houses will employ specific frost-detection techniques to grade out damaged fruit.

The last week of the year is traditionally the slowest marketing period of the season and most retail outlets have sufficient inventory of citrus items to satisfy consumer need. California Citrus Mutual officials cautioned that higher prices would take hold as normal marketing resumed after the New Year's holiday.

The last time such cold-weather devastation hit this region was in 1990 when 90% of the citrus crop was lost as temperatures hovered in the teens for several days.

"Conditions were eerily similar to 1990," said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual. "This crop is late maturing and the fruit is more susceptible to frost damage. Over 85% of the crop is on the trees because of the late start for harvest."

Just prior to Christmas, the cold snap overcame growers' attempts to save their fruit, using such techniques as running irrigation water, wind machines and hovering helicopters, which create a warm air flow around the trees. Additionally, some growers in the Pacific Gas & Electric service area were hit with power outages and brownouts. This left some growers without these defenses.