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Agriculture: Despite heavy damages from drought and cold, 1990 state farm revenues are expected to show an increase.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The worst freeze since 1937 and the worst drought since the Dust Bowl days combined to deliver an estimated $1.2-billion hit to California agriculture in 1990--a one-two punch so hard that few can remember its equal.

The December cold wiped out entire crops in parts of the citrus belt, and some growers stand to lose the farm over the 14-day dip in temperature. Crop-damage estimates have reached the $700 million mark, and some 15,000 farm workers and citrus packers could be laid off.

“The leaves are rolled up and the fruit. . .you can mash with your hand,” said Robert Bream, who lost the entire citrus crop at his 150-acre grove in Lindsay. “We don’t have anything that is of any commercial value as far as fresh fruit is concerned.”

More amazing than the damage--split bark and dried leaves from the freeze, distressed trees and unplanted land from the drought--is the fact that the double trouble did not cripple California agriculture.

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Far from it, in fact. In 1990, state agricultural economists estimated that California farm revenues would reach $18 billion for the year, up from $17.5 billion in 1989. Even as they assessed freeze damage and told farmers that the week’s rainfall would do nothing to reverse the drought, they stood by their earlier projections.

“The California agriculture industry is so diversified that a severe damage to one of its crops will not have a devastating impact on agriculture revenues in general,” said Frank Limacher, agricultural economist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Unlike Florida, which faced a crippling freeze a year ago, California is not dependent on a single crop. In Florida, oranges made up 22% of the state’s $5.8 billion farm economy in 1988, the most recent non-freeze year. In California, oranges represent only 2.4% of farm receipts.

“Citrus is an important part of California agriculture, but it’s by no means a dominant feature,” said Elmer Learn, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis. “We think of ourselves as a state that’s dominated by fruits and vegetables, but our most important commodities are dairy products and alfalfa and cotton and things of that nature.”

But while the general outlook is strong, Learn and other economists point out that the drought is still with us, heading into its fifth year. And the freeze is the worst to hit California citrus since the industry was launched in the 1870s.

“It’s a bad situation, the worst in California history in terms of cold weather,” said Ray Borton, CDFA’S senior agricultural economist.

The December freeze is one of the worst the 74-year-old Bream has seen--and he has seen many.

“I was born between Azusa and Glendora on an orange grove, and I’ve been involved in one way or another with citrus ever since,” Bream said. “This is not a happy new year.”

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Bream’s entire orange crop was damaged, although some fruit may be saved to produce juice. If he can salvage his crop in that fashion, Bream said he might just earn enough money to cover the cost of picking and transportation.

“If it is picked and hauled to the juice plant, there’s a question now whether there’s enough salvage value there to pay those costs,” he said.

Bream fought the chill with wind machines, water and a limited number of orchard heaters. At first he was trying to save the fruit, but, as the wildly expensive heat simply sailed off into the sky, he said he knew that the most he could hope for was to save the trees.

“If it weren’t for salvaging the trees, we would have been better off to not turn on a wind machine or the water and to just go to bed and forget it,” he said.

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Damage also was extensive on the six acres of lemons and oranges grown by Solon Boydston in Porterville. When temperatures fall well below freezing, “there’s nothing you can do. It’s like having a house with all the windows out,” Boydston said.

“My family has been though every major freeze since the turn of the century,” said the 68-year-old Boydston, who owned 240 acres of orchards until he sold out two years ago. “Now most everyone has written off their crop. Their concern is what’s going to happen next year” because of tree damage.

“It’s really going to be hard on some of these small towns,” he said. “Many people are unemployed all of a sudden.” And many of the packing houses that have no fruit to process still have debts to pay, he said.

While it is still too early to assess the cold snap’s full effects, many of the hardest-hit counties have tallied up preliminary damage estimates and begun filing for disaster relief. Early estimates point to a $700-million price tag, which includes crop damage but little tree damage. The full effects will not be apparent until spring.

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Tulare County, where Bream and Boydston grow oranges, felt the greatest pain. Estimates range from $200 million to $250 million in freeze-related losses.

Ventura and Kern counties are tied for second place, reporting $100 million in losses each.

The deputy agriculture commissioner in Fresno County estimates $68 million in damages in that area. The assessment so far is that 90% to 95% of the county’s citrus crop was damaged. The fruit is just starting to thaw out; fruit and trees are showing signs of the freeze. Lemons and oranges are both hard hit.

“In navel oranges, we have 15,630 acres,” said Dennis Plann, deputy agricultural commissioner. “That’s the largest segment of our citrus. We’re seeing frost damage in them, burning of the shoots and new growth, loss of fruitwood. That’s going to affect next year’s crop, which is going to be reduced. Young trees are hard hit.”

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The freeze was bad enough, but the drought exacerbated the problem, said Limacher, a state agricultural economist.

When the state’s citrus crop was hit by a freeze in January, 1972, it came in a year of normal rainfall. Fog followed freeze, insulating much of the Central Valley crop, protecting it from cold and loss.

“What we have right now is night after starry night, and it’s cold,” Limacher said. “We’re afraid that the damage that we saw limited to Northern California in 1972 will be seen this year through the whole Central Valley.”

Even without the freeze, the drought has been a daunting foe to California farmers. The state’s drought center pegs drought damages alone at $455 million in 1990. That number will grow in 1991 if the drought continues--and it shows no sign of abating.

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California’s farmers can perhaps take some comfort from the experience of Florida, which is rebounding from six killing frosts the past decade. The latest freeze, at Christmastime of 1989, “was a heck of a Christmas present,” said Pat Cockrell, director of commodity activities at the Florida Farm Bureau Federation.

The freeze wiped out about 40% of the orange and grapefruit crops, and “we had people literally declaring bankruptcy overnight,” Cockrell said.

The problem in Florida is that citrus crops make up 30% of the state’s agricultural economy, compared to only 4% of California’s. A freeze that wipes out oranges and grapefruit in Florida, in essence, deals a death blow to the state’s economy.

But the news is not all bad. In the 1990-91 season, Florida agriculture officials now estimate, the state will produce 165 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, a figure that “flabbergasted” everyone, Cockrell said.

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In the freeze season of 1989-90, the state’s output reached 110 million boxes, up from the 92 million that was first estimated when the frost had melted. Grapefruit production is expected to rise to 45 million 85-pound boxes in 1990-91 from 40 million in 1989-90.

The reason for the rebound in Florida’s $3-billion citrus industry is aggressive planting in the southern part of the state. Even with extensive tree damage further north, the industry lost only about 10,000 to 15,000 acres, Cockrell said.

Florida officials hope to reach capacity production of about 200 million boxes by 1995, barring future freezes, he said. Record production was 212 million boxes in 1979, before the run of cold winters.

What’s more, Florida growers have become wiser in dealing with the weather and have learned how to fight the cold more efficiently, he said. In addition, acreage now is planted more densely, so it can produce more fruit than older plantings.

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“All of us have gained a degree of sophistication about freezes, unfortunately,” Cockrell said.

While sophistication is a good thing, California farmers are less dependent on such skills to deal with freeze damage, economists say. They are helped by several factors, the simplest being the law of supply and demand. When there’s less product, what’s left is worth more money.

That does not help a grower who has been wiped out, but it helps those who have partial crops to offset some of their losses. A case in point is Riverside County, where 6,800 acres of unharmed navel oranges are waiting to be picked.

“The freeze’s effect on the navel orange prices will be a real shot in the arm for some citrus growers here,” said James Wallace, Riverside County agriculture commissioner. “We have about 7,500 acres, about 6,800 yet to harvest. That’s what’s bringing smiles to a lot of faces.”

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The state’s agricultural diversity is also a great help. With 250 commercial crops--50 of them considered of major economic importance--the farm economy is not lost when one crop is devastated.

And, finally, there’s agriculture’s general health before the freeze.

“We had a very serious situation in farming in the 1980s,” said Fred Cannon, senior economist at Bank of America in San Francisco. “As a result of it hitting bottom in 1986, we have a farm economy today with very little debt. It’s been recapitalized. You have an agricultural economy that can withstand some shock.”

But in the short term, such shock can be hard to bear. With farm workers and citrus packers heading to the unemployment office and growers calling for disaster relief, it is impossible to ignore the individual costs of the freeze.

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“When looked at in the context of all of California agriculture, (the freeze) is a relatively small problem,” said Davis’ Learn. “When looked at in the context of the total California economy, it becomes even smaller still . . . But for those individuals involved, it’s a tragedy.”

A COLD-SNAP HIT PARADE

Exceptionally cold air, from December 20 to date, has caused major damage to growing crops in California, according to the California Agriculture Statistics Service. Temperatures dropped into the teens in many Central Valley locations--the hardest hit areas in the state--between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31. Although accurate damage estimates have yet to be tabulated, the following crops suffered the biggest losses:

* Navel Oranges: Approximately 90% of the state’s navel orange acreage is in the Central Valley, where about 20% of the crop had been picked before the freeze. Only a minimal number of navels still on the trees will be marketable as fresh fruit.

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* Avocados: The California Avocado Commission estimates the overall loss to be 20%. The current crop will still be larger than last season’s.

* Floral and Nursery: Central Coast flowers in the field were lost. Between 10% and 20% of container stocks at grower nurseries were lost.

* Vegetables: Losses of fields of vegetables in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys have been reported. Some crops will suffer a delay in start of harvest. Central Coast vegetables will require replanting.

* Strawberries: The current strawberry harvest in the South Coast region has been lost. About half the current blooms also have been lost. The crop will be diminished until new blooms develop, in about two to four weeks.

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* Melons: Early estimates indicate that between 15% and 20% of the emerging Imperial Valley melon crop will need to be replanted.

* Sugar Beets: Northern California sugar beets for spring harvest--about 10% to 15% of the total crop--have been reported frozen. If they can be harvested in the next several weeks, the crop can be salvaged.

Los Angeles Times

FREEZE LOSSES Freeze damage estimates range across the boad. They are all preliminary and all will probably rise as damage to trees and later crops becomes apparent. To date, experts are estimating $700 million total for the state, but it could go as high as $1 billion. Here are estimates for the hardest-hit counties: Riverside: $12.5 million Madera: $16.3 million Imperial: $20 million Fresno: $68 million Kern: $100 million Ventura: $100 million Tulare: $250 million Sources: County agriculture commissioners

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1. TULARE: With $250 million in damage, Tulare was the hardest hit county in the state. 2. VENTURA: Twenty percent of the state’s avocado crop was lost, with great damage in Ventura County. 3. SAN DIEGO: The current strawberry harvest in the South Coast has been lost.


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