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Farmer Wages Stubborn Fight Against Freeze

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With his smudge pots dying out for lack of fuel and news that some neighboring growers had given up the fight, citrus grower Bob Davis refused Saturday night to accept that he might lose his orange and lemon crop to one of this century’s worst freezes.

To elevate ground-temperatures, Davis deployed every means available from using a helicopter to keep the air circulating above his 103-acre orchard to drafting in-laws and nieces visiting from Michigan for Christmas to help in the fields.

“I guess this isn’t what you imagined your vacation in California would be like,” Davis said to his 19-year-old niece, Peri Ann Gauthier, as she bundled up in sweaters, hat and gloves after rising at 2 a.m. to ignite additional orchard heaters.

His son, Rob, helped drag out an 80-year-old, steel-wheeled oil-tank trailer that fell apart from the vibration of its wheels digging grooves in the pavement.

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Davis’ daughter, Nan, was dispatched along with three farm workers, two cousins and a family friend to light and relight 1,200 flickering orchard heaters. She took over the chores early Sunday from her brother, who was fast asleep after 36 hours in the fields.

“You get so tired, but you can’t fall asleep because you know dad is gonna come and wake you,” Nan Davis, 21, said between catnaps. “But I grew up in these orchards, and I’d do anything for my father.”

As the sun rose over the Ojai Valley Sunday, temperatures had yet to rise above 24 degrees. Davis instructed the helicopter pilot to keep flying about 80 feet above the orchards so that the spinning rotor could supplement the 12 fans on towers used to push along pockets of frigid air that had settled into low-lying areas.

“The ones who’ve dropped out, they may be smart and I may be dumb,” said Davis, 51, whose parents bought the original 33-acre Crooked Creek Ranch after the grand-daddy of all killing freezes in 1937. “But any fruit that is saved is going to be worth its weight in gold.”

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Like thousands of farmers throughout California this weekend, Davis confronted a force of nature far more deadly than the current drought. Evidence of the weather’s fierceness hung on his trees in the form of three-foot icicles, born of irrigation water used as a stop-gap insulator. The icicle clusters, which first began to form Saturday morning, had not melted by Sunday night.

Davis estimated that up to 50% of his fruit already was dead on the trees--victims of overnight temperatures Saturday and Sunday that plunged as much as 7 degrees below the fatal 28-degree level. Temperatures remained at damaging levels both nights far beyond the four-hour safety limit. It may be several weeks before he knows the full extent of the damage.

But Davis maintained a grower’s faith in the resiliency of his crop, even though the severity of the freeze ranked with the century’s worst in 1913, 1937, 1949 and 1968, he said. He recalled about a half dozen times when he has had to fight the cold.

Several times throughout the night, Davis resorted to humor to keep his family’s spirits up, saying, for example: “At least maybe it’s killed off the snails.”

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Facing another night of sub-freezing temperatures, Davis was torn Sunday over whether to ignite half or all of his 10-gallon smudge pots, which heat the area around four trees for up to nine hours.

He had used $4,000 worth of heating oil by Saturday morning, and the last of his fuel in storage was used to refill the smudge pots later that day. He placed an order for $6,000 worth of diesel, but it will not arrive until today.

“Having used the heaters one night, can I afford to leave them off?” Davis asked aloud. “We’ve got it to fire, so I guess we might as well use it.” He later discovered that a neighbor had 10,000 gallons he could spare.

At 6:15 a.m, Davis drove to a nearby helipad and learned some other growers already had written off efforts to save their crops. His helicopter contractor, David Wilkins, said four of the 12 growers he was providing flyovers for called off the choppers before dawn Sunday.

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“Everyone’s taking it in the shorts,” said Wilkins, who supervised the flyovers from a heated motor home. “It was real bad last night.”

Davis said he stands to lose not only 37 acres of lemons due for harvesting next month, but 66 acres of oranges scheduled for harvest later next year and three more lemon crops that would mature through next fall.

In the midst of renewing the fight to save his crops, Davis took time out to help decorate the family’s Christmas tree. This will be the first year his wife and her two brothers have been reunited for Christmas since 1965.

“My kids all came home for Christmas, they are all healthy,” Davis said. “We’ll keep on farming. We’ll do all right.”

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