Growers Survive Bad Case of the Southland Chills

Times Staff Writer

The cold temperatures of the last week have delayed harvesting of some crops in Southern California and caused citrus farmers to take protective measures against overnight frost conditions, but damage has been light, local agriculture officials said Tuesday.

Thus, with the National Weather Service saying the end of the cold wave is in sight, farmers seem to have escaped relatively unscathed.

"We feel that if we get through tonight, we'll be OK," E. Leon Spaugy, Riverside County agricultural commissioner, said Tuesday in anticipation of another cold night. "Overall, we feel we've escaped with minimal damage."

Overnight readings were again expected to fall to the low 40s in the Los Angeles Basin and dip into the upper 20s in the eastern coastal valleys, according to the weather service.

Fair and slightly warmer days, with maximum readings in the mid-60s, were predicted for today and Thursday by the weather service.

Late-Night Vigils

During the cold spell, citrus farmers in some parts of the Southland, including Orange and Riverside counties, geared up their wind machines and held late-night vigils in anticipation of a deep freeze that never materialized, officials said.

In Riverside County, which is Southern California's leading citrus-producing area, some farmers fired up their smudge pots for the first time this winter.

"We're seeing more firing this year than we have in the past 7 to 10 years," Spaugy said, explaining that higher-than-usual citrus prices have made the cost of using the diesel-fueled pots worthwhile to growers this season.

Of prime concern to Orange County farmers is the Valencia orange crop, due to begin ripening in late spring for the fall harvest, according to officials.

"It's been cold, but not really cold enough to cause any serious economic damage," said Fred Keller, vice president of agriculture for the Irvine Co. "What we've failed to remember is that we've had four very mild winters. This winter is worse than those but not all that bad as far as California winters go."

In Los Angeles County, the cold weather has slowed the growth of the county's $5-million strawberry crop in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys but otherwise has done little damage, county agriculture officials said.

Overhead irrigation sprinklers have been used by San Gabriel Valley farmers to protect the fruit from the cold, especially in the San Dimas area, where overnight temperatures dropped to the mid-20s last week, said Jeff Humphreys, an inspector with the county agricultural commissioner's office.

"I'm sure we'll see some damage, some loss of fruit. We won't know for a couple of days, until we cut into the fruit," Humphreys said, adding that he expects the damage to be slight.

Humphreys said nursery stock, the county's other major crop, was routinely sprayed with frost guard material in anticipation of winter.

"I don't expect much, if any, damage," he said.

Clifford Kotake, whose family grows strawberries on 140 leased acres in Chatsworth, said that the cold has slowed the growth of the fruit and that the beginning of the harvest, which usually begins in late January or mid-February, will be delayed about a month.

"It's not cold enough to kill the fruit," Kotake said. "If it gets down to about 28 degrees for a long duration, then it might."

Most farm operations in the valleys rely heavily on vegetable crops, especially corn, which are not vulnerable to the cold at this time of year, experts said.

"The corn we have in the ground now is still under ground," said Joe Cicero, foreman of the 185-acre Cicero Bros. farm in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area, the largest remaining farm in the San Fernando Valley. "It won't grow up to ground level for about three weeks."

Harvesting of winter vegetable crops in the Imperial Valley has been slowed by early-morning frost, but no actual damage has been reported, Darrell Byrd of the Imperial County agricultural commissioner's office said Tuesday.

Early plantings of tomatoes and other spring vegetables have suffered slight frost damage, he said, "but nothing significant."

Injecting a note of optimism into the worrisome effects of the cold wave, Byrd said that the chill will serve to help suppress the insect populations in the area.

"We've had warmer-than-normal temperatures for the last four or five winters, which seem to hurt in the long run, because it's intensified the insect problem," he said, adding that "low temperatures keep the insect population down."

Times staff writers Melita Garza and T.W. McGarry contributed to this article.

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