Growers Survive Bad Case of the Southland Chills

Times Staff Writer

The cold temperatures of the past 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, 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.

Overnight readings are 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.

Orange County Report

In Orange County, farmers have geared up their wind machines and have held late-night vigils in anticipation of a deep freeze, but thus far the Orange groves and the strawberry fields have emerged unscathed, said Jim Harnett, chief deputy agricultural commissioner.

"Our inspectors have been out in the field and up to the moment we don't have any reports of any damage," Harnett said.

Of prime concern to the farmers is the Valencia orange crop, which is already on the trees but will not ripen until April, May or June and is harvested through November, Harnett said. The strawberry harvest is also at a tender stage, as the plants are beginning to flower.

"I think 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.

Strawberry Harvest Under Way

"The crop is being slowed down slightly in growth. There may be a little tip burn in a few isolated areas, but it's not a major effect at this point. We are already harvesting some strawberries, just picking every other day. If we continued to have cold weather like this for two weeks or 10 days, we might have a more serious setback in terms of the harvest time. But the weather's expected to turn around."

"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."

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

"We're seeing more firing this year than we have in the past seven 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.

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.

Growth Slowed

Clifford Kotake, whose family grows strawberries on 140 leased acres in Chatsworth, said the cold has slowed the growth of the fruit, and 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 point, experts said.

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.

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

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