Get Ready for an Orange Crunch

  • Share
  • Read Later
Justin Sullivan / Getty

Icicles cover an orange tree January 17, 2007, in Orange Cove, California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency as an estimated 70% of California's citrus crops have been damaged by severe cold.

Get ready to pay more for oranges and other fresh produce, as California growers survey the damage caused by a cold snap that destroyed as much as three-quarters of the state's citrus and hit nearly every other winter crop, from avocados to strawberries. The total cost to farmers could surpass the $700 million lost during a three-day freeze in December 1998, state agriculture secretary A.G. Kawamura said on Monday, the day before Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked for federal disaster relief from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Administration.

The wholesale price of oranges has already doubled to around $25 a carton, and consumers will start seeing the increase in supermarkets soon. Retailers can get some fruit elsewhere — lemons from Texas, clementines from Spain — but since most of the fresh citrus consumed in the U.S. comes from California (partly because of limits on imports), the impact of the freeze is practically unavoidable. Florida produces more citrus overall, but almost all of its oranges go into juice. "In terms of [fresh] oranges, there really isn't anywhere else to go," says Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis. "The few oranges left will be specialty items."

Part of the reason the impact is so great is that the freeze hit with 70% of California's citrus still hanging on the tree. Unlike many other fruits, such as cherries, oranges aren't picked until they are ready to be sold. Some 12,000 fruit pickers and packers will now lose months of work, as a harvest meant to last until June will now probably end in March, after the remaining fruit is picked.

During four nights of below-freezing temperatures that started Friday, many growers tried to keep their crops viable with heated irrigation water and wind machines to circulate warm air. But those methods raise the temperature only a degree or two: citrus needs to stay at or above 28 degrees, and the temperature dipped down to 25 degrees for up to 10 hours a night. "The fruit just couldn't take it," says Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a trade association.

Over the weekend, the trade association's members voted to trigger a consumer protection program designed in response to the 1998 freeze, after which growers inadvertently sold damaged fruit. An orange often takes days to show decay on the outside, even though it will be bitter and dry on the inside. California growers are now holding harvested fruit in packing houses for four to five days and testing it to avoid another PR snafu. And while growers will make more money on the few oranges they are able to sell, they are also aware that they have an incentive to keep a cap on the extra margin. Peaches, nectarines and grapes, many of which come from Chile, are now hitting their peak season — and for many consumers, that substitution may do just fine.