(Jan. 10: UPDATED Jan. 12, 11:00 a.m. CST) Forecasters anticipate a cold snap of record low temperatures in California’s San Joaquin Valley starting Jan. 12, causing concern among citrus grower-shippers.

“There’s not much you can do,” said Joe Berberian, salesman for Fowler-based Bee Sweet Citrus Inc. “All you can do is run your wind machines and water. When it gets down to the levels they’re saying, they’re nothing you can do. When you get down to 24 degrees, the wind machines are going to bring it only up about 2 degrees.”

The National Weather Service predicts lows from 23 to 28 degrees for most locations in the central and southern San Joaquin Valley, with some areas falling into the teens. The temperatures could linger for several days, the weather service reported.

Growers said they’ll be on alert all weekend, hoping to elude a repeat of 1998, when, according to Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, a freeze wiped out three-quarters of the state’s citrus crop.

“We’ve got one forecaster that’s indicating that this is not unlike conditions in the 1998 freeze,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual. “If those temperatures get too cold, we can anticipate some damage.”

Temperatures dipping under 28 degrees for more than five hours can damage the fruit, Nelsen said.

A serious freeze could deal a deadly blow to what has been a high-quality crop, he added.

“The crop this year has been very good,” he said. “It’s a good piece of fruit, but it’s a very short crop. Last spring the conditions weren’t that great, and we didn’t get as much fruit as we expected. So, any loss is critical. But we’re off to a very good start.”

Nelsen said only 25% of the navel crop had been harvested by Jan. 10 and about 28% of the lemons had been picked.

“This could be the end of the navel season,” said Chuck Olsen, owner of The Chuck Olsen Company, Visalia.

Olsen said that because of low sugar content and thinner skins, lemons still on trees would be wiped out if temperatures dropped into the low 20s for an extended period.

Growers were in full crisis mode, as the cold front approached, said Russ Tavlan, president of Reedley-based Moonlight Packing Corp.

“We prepare for the worst and pray for the best,” Tavlan said. “We have our own helicopter and all our crops in one layer. If there is an inversion layer (slightly higher temperatures above the grove), we can find it and maximize our temperature controls by finding that. With a helicopter you can pick your elevation. If the inversion layer is a little higher, you can blow that down with the helicopter.”

Mike Wootton, senior vice president of corporate relations for Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers Inc., said growers have wind machines and water systems ready for use.

But, he added, that may not be enough, if forecasts hold.

“That could be pretty devastating,” he said. “With wind machines and helicopters, even if you raise the temperatures five degrees, it’s still very devastating.”

Should the worst occur, the market wouldn’t take long to react, Wootton said.

“Supply and demand kicks in immediately,” he said. “We’ve already seen a response from the customer base. They’ve been trying to get as much fruit into the pipeline as possible.”

However, stocking up is a gamble itself, said Mike Aiton, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Bakersfield-based Sun World International Inc.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “We feel that if you pick like crazy and build up a big inventory and temperatures don’t dip and somehow you miss this bullet, you have a big inventory, which is harmful to prices,” Aiton said. “On the other hand, you need to salvage what you can to get product into the cooler.”

Shoring up inventories is only a short-term fix, anyway, Wootton said.

“Of course, once you get to the point where you’ve exhausted current supply and try to distinguish between damaged fruit and groves and other undamaged areas, we’d have a production moratorium, perhaps seven days,” Wootton said. “We need to be able to discern between fruit that’s been damaged and fruit that hasn’t been damaged, and that takes time.”

The citrus industry anticipates such scenarios, so a freeze wouldn’t blindside growers, Wootton noted.

"The industry has been involved in a lot of ongoing conversations about that with the state and county commissioners, so we’re trying to make sure all those plans are in place if needed,” he said. “We’ll make sure we stay on top of this. But, there definitely would be a shortfall in the marketplace.”

Issues in other production regions would only exacerbate the problem, Wootton said.

“Given the situation Florida faces, with canker and other problems, and given the weather problems in other production areas, the drought and tornadoes in Australia, they’re looking at a significant decline in their citrus availability,” he said. “This could have some significant consequences.”

Freeze worries remain for navels, lemons
A crew of pickers was trying to salvage as much of the navel crop as possible Jan. 11 at the family farm of Ron Olson, Sanger, Calif. Olson says he hoped the crew would get 70% of his navels harvested before the predicted hard freeze Friday night or Saturday morning. He says he could only hope irrigating the remainder of his orange grove would protect the fruit from the freeze.