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Associated Press
Misters create a thin layer of ice on these oranges to protect them during a cold snap in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Growers fight cold to save citrus crops

– After the orange harvesting ends for the day and the sun sets, the toughest part of John S. Gless’ day is just beginning: a desperate fight to stave off a cold spell threatening to destroy his citrus crop.

The vice president and manager of Gless Ranch, which grows oranges, lemons and grapefruit on 5,000 acres 100 miles north of Los Angeles, spends his nights shuttling from field to field where costly wind machines are warming up the groves by a few critical degrees that can make all the difference when temperatures dip dangerously low.

“You get frost calls, and you go out and kind of control to make sure it doesn’t do any damage. And then you get a full-blown freeze where you’re fighting to save crops,” Gless said Thursday. “Last night, we beat it.”

Growers across California have toiled this week to protect the state’s prized $2 billion-a-year citrus industry – and other key crops, including lettuce and avocados – from the cold snap that engulfed the state and dropped temperatures to levels that can damage fruit and delay the harvest of greens.

Some damage is expected to the mandarin and navel orange crops in the Central Valley, but the extent is still unknown. Any losses likely won’t be known for several weeks, though the industry does not expect a dramatic impact on supply or price, according to California Citrus Mutual, an association of growers.

Citrus farmers are no strangers to cold and use irrigation and wind machines to propel warm air through the fields and raise the temperature by several degrees after nightfall.

Farmers are on the lookout once temperatures drop to 28 degrees, and anything in the low 20s is critical, said Bob Blakely, the association’s director of industry relations.

Temperatures fell to a near-record 28 degrees early Thursday and Friday in Fresno. A storm system was expected to increase temperatures to around freezing early today and could bring snowflakes to the valley floor, said Modesto Vasquez, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. Another cold spell is forecast this weekend.

Citrus farmers have spent $12.4 million since the cold snap began to try to warm up the fields, the growers association said. Of key concern is the mandarin crop, because the small fruit is thinner-skinned than other oranges and is more susceptible to cold.

In Riverside, temperatures hit 31 degrees early Thursday, which is 11 degrees below normal, said Ryan Kittell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The state’s farmers are about eight weeks into the season, and 85 percent of the navel orange harvest lies ahead, Blakely said. And while these cold spells threaten the crop, the mild days and chilly nights are also what make California’s oranges so vibrant and tasty, he said.

“We need the cold air to color up the fruit and bring up the flavor,” Blakely said. “It’s our greatest blessing, but if it gets too cold, it can be a curse.”