Citrus Growers in California Take a Hit from Freeze and Drought

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California citrus growers have felt the effects of the state’s climate woes this year. The winter freeze and the three-year drought have hit California citrus production hard, and it does not look like it will improve anytime soon.

In December, temperatures in the Central Valley fell below freezing, which resulted in a shorter harvest season for navel oranges and mandarins. The navel orange harvest usually ends around the fourth of July, and according to Bob Blakely, of California Citrus Mutual, the harvest ended two to three weeks ahead of schedule. “The freeze reduced our crop, so as a result, we’re running out of fruit earlier than we would have normally,” Blakely said.

The freeze hit all Central Valley citrus, but Valencia oranges are expected to do well this harvest season because, according to Blakely, it was in a different growing stage that the others so it was less susceptible. Blakely said the fruit did not show evidence of much damage so there would not be a drastic reduction in Valencia oranges this year. There is also an ample supply of lemons this year because only about 25 percent of lemon crops are grown in the Central Valley. The rest are on the Central Coast, which was not hit by the cold snap.

As for citrus distribution, packer-growers plan to ship what is available. Al Imbimbo, VP of sales at Suntreat Packing & Shipping Co., which is based in Lindsey, plans to ship Valencia oranges this summer. He remains optimistic that the California citrus market, which slowed during the freeze, will pick up again this summer.

While the freeze hit California citrus growers’ ability to harvest this year, the drought is hit growers’ ability produce. The effects of the drought have caused a Gless Ranch citrus grove in Bakersfield to be plowed under, and Central Valley growers have not been receiving water from their water supplier due to allocation elsewhere, disabling them from growing any citrus. “The federal government will be the cause of lost jobs and economic recession in the Central Valley if water is not made available,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in a statement.

The water that the Central Valley should receive is being stored because of measures enacted by the Federal Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service in order to protect the delta smelt. California Citrus Mutual argued that the water should be delivered to Central Valley farmers because the March storms increased waters stores by 1.2 million acre feet, thereby adding plenty to maintain the fish and supply citrus growers.

The lack of rain and refusal of government agencies to distribute water to Central Valley growers has forced the removal citrus groves. “The actions by the federal government and the inability of the state administration to challenge existing policy is forcing another block of prime citrus acreage to be removed as a result of water not being made available,” Nelsen said.

California’s citrus growers are in danger of becoming unproductive. Growers who have the option are reducing their acreage and their irrigation, which is having an impact on the quality of the fruit as well as the quantity. According to Blakely, this could have an impact on citrus for the next five years.

The hit California citrus growers sustained from the freeze and the drought might affect the Central Valley economy for a long time to come. Growers might get a leg up this winter with the expected El Niño storm. However, if scientists are correct, it might not be much rain to help citrus production next year.

By Brandi M. Fleeks

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