(Jan. 25, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) They dot the San Joaquin Valley landscape. They are barely wide spots on rural roads.

Wide spots with names like Orange Cove, Strathmore, Orosi, Lindsay, Exeter, Sultana, Terra Bella, Cutler, Ivanhoe, Farmersville, Lemon Cove. They are small but vital cogs in California’s $1 billion plus citrus growing-packing-shipping industry. And they are battling the effects of the January freeze.

The citrus industry is an agriculture giant in eastern Fresno and Tulare Counties. Miles and miles of citrus groves are tucked up against the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

ORANGE COVE

A 30-minute drive north of Strathmore finds Orange Cove. It’s four times the size of Strathmore. But nearly everything else is the same.

City administrator Bill Little said agriculture employs 85% to 90% of the community’s work force.

“And every single business in town is dependent on the paychecks distributed to those who work in the fields and the packinghouses,” Little said.

That there will be fewer paychecks is a certainty. Little said the Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association notified city officials Jan. 23 that it had closed its packinghouse until November. There are nine citrus packinghouses in and around Orange Cove.

Another now-closed packinghouse, Sunny Cove Citrus LLC, found another way to help its out-of-work employees. A Fresno church has been collecting nonperishable food and household goods for nearly a week.

Little said the church vowed to deliver as many as nine truckloads to Orange Cove Jan. 27. He said Sunny Cove Citrus was donating forklifts and drivers to help unload the trucks and had promised to store surplus goods at no cost to the city.

The city’s coffers are going to take a hit. Little said the expected drop in retail business will mean sales tax revenues will drop. He said lots of bills will likely go unpaid to the city-owned utilities.

Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez said getting through the hard freezes of 1990 and 1998 taught him and others well. He said industry and government have been much more efficient.

“I was very pleased with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s quick decision to declare a state of emergency,” Lopez said.

Lopez said the furloughed farm workers are not asking for government handouts.

“They want jobs,” he said.

Lopez said a woman who had lost her job at a packinghouse asked to clean city hall. He said she promised to clean the government offices seven days a week.

Lopez said he is working with the California Congressional delegation to introduce legislation that would establish short-term public works projects similar to programs instituted during the Great Depression. Lopez said there are plenty of jobs that need to be done in all of the valley’s smaller communities.

A secondary goal, Lopez said, is to provide hands-on training so the workers will be able to move into industries that require skills. He said the freeze just may prove to be an opportunity.

Lopez said the business community has been very supportive. He contacted Zacky Farms, Fresno, a major poultry processor, about job opportunities.

The next day, Lopez said Zacky Farms sent three vans to Orange Cove, hired people on the spot and transported the new workers to the company’s Fresno plant.

Lopez said he expected 6,000 people would turn out Jan. 27 to pick up donated items from the Fresno church. He said every family would receive food that would last them at least one week.

Lopez has been a non-stop, one-man public relations firm for Orange Cove since the freeze hit. He has been on television, radio and in newspaper articles nearly every day.

Lopez said it’s all about helping his constituents.

“I’m just giving them hope,” Lopez said.

For now, that hope may be the slim thread holding together the town’s residents.

STRATHMORE

Strathmore is among the smallest of the Tulare County communities. Its residents number just over 2,500. A handful of businesses mark the two blocks that are downtown. The town’s only sit-down restaurant is the Dinky Diner. Ten days after the onslaught of the frigid temperatures, owner Carlos Guzman said his business was off 50%.

The diner’s remaining lifeline is just down the street, Strathmore Union High School. Students make the lunch hour a busy time. But when they return to campus, Guzman said his staff of three often goes several hours without seeing another customer.

Guzman said he hopes to stay open for a few more months, at least until school is out for the summer.

“I may have to lay off someone before then,” Guzman said.

At the high school, assistant principal Becky Haley said the students had not yet fully understood the severity of the freeze damage. Of the school’s enrollment of 400, she said 80% are Hispanic and nearly all of their parents work in agriculture.

Because the community and school are small, Haley said the staff has good relationships with students.

“When we see that a student is troubled, we take the time to talk with him,” Haley said.

Haley said she expects there will be students who will be distracted by the financial problems of their parents.

During a normal year, Haley said one of every five students at the beginning of the academic year is gone by the following spring. She said the families move to other harvests. In 1998, the last year a major hard freeze hit the valley, she said the dropout rate skyrocketed.

Ralph Johns owns Strathmore Auto Parts. He’s the only employee. The year after the December 1990 freeze, Johns said business fell off 50%. He’s hoping 2007 will be a little better.

Johns said he expects the store’s March through November sales will decline 30%.

Johns quickly added, “But that figure may be a bit too optimistic.”

“When dollars are tight, the guy who changes his oil every 3,000 miles waits until at least 5,000 miles or more,” Johns said.

Johns said the freeze will force him to reduce his profit margin.

“If I normally make $10 on an item, I’ll cut it to $5 when that’s all the customer has,” Johns said.

If past freeze years are any indication, Johns said sales in his hardware section will increase while the feed-store section will drop off.

“When people are home all the time, things get broken or wear out more quickly,” Johns said, “so I’ll sell more faucets and so on.”

But feed sales will go down. Johns said people won’t be feeding 30 or 40 chickens any longer; they’ll be feeding five or six. The rest, he said, become meals.

Johns, who has been a resident and business owner in Strathmore for 25 years, said everything depends on whether the farm and packinghouse workers keep or find other jobs.

“Ninety percent of the people who live in and around Strathmore work in the citrus industry,” Johns said.

Agriculture drives more than 95% of his store’s revenues, Johns said. The only other major buyer is the school district, which he said accounts for less than 5% of sales.