As temperatures rose yesterday, California's Central Valley orange growers were in a sunnier mood after initial inspections showed that last week's big chill may have spared more of their crop than they first feared.
Instead of facing catastrophic losses, farmers were cautiously optimistic that they might be able to salvage 50 percent or more of their crops. That could be good news in the long run for consumers, who nevertheless face a short-term spike in orange prices at the supermarket as soon as today.
"I think consumers still can expect to pay prices ranging from $1.50 to $2 a pound," said Grant Hunt, president of Grant J. Hunt Co., an Oakland fruit and vegetable broker. Preliminary estimates have pegged damage at $591 million from the winter freeze that plunged temperatures into the mid-20s for four consecutive nights.
Citrus farmers in the hardest-hit counties -- Kern, Tulare and Fresno -- estimated that the freeze damaged half to 70 percent of their navel oranges. In some cases, farmers suffered total losses.
Growers in those counties know they have lost 100 percent of their lemon crop. But that has not had an impact on lemon prices because the majority of the state's lemon crop is grown in Southern California, which was not as hard hit as the Central Valley.
As orange growers cut into sample oranges this weekend, they found that more fruit had survived with little or no damage.
"I'm hearing more optimism from growers I know who say 50 to 70 percent of the crop is good," said Nick Hill, general manager of the family owned Green Leaf Farms, east of Fresno. "They're opening up the fruit and not seeing as much internal damage as they thought there was going to be." Hill was only "cautiously optimistic" that a large portion of his 1,000 acres of oranges were fine.
Dave Brown, whose family's farm in Orange Cove in Tulare County did not fully recover from the freeze of 1990 until this year, also was hopeful that he lost only half his crop, but he won't know for another three or four days.
"It's just really hard to tell," Brown said. "We're trying to see how we can minimize the loss. I'm hopeful we don't have a full loss."
On the wholesale market, orange packers were asking 60 percent to 70 percent more for oranges harvested before the freeze, said Hunt, who also is chairman of the Produce Marketing Association, an international trade association for fresh-produce and floral producers, distributors and retailers.
Wholesale buyers balked at Monday's prices of $22 a box, or 38 pounds, for small oranges, and $31 per box for larger oranges. That could cause prices to subside by 20 percent by the end of the week; however, without knowing the extent of crop damage, Hunt said, "it's still too early to tell."
He said some supermarkets, which had sales as low as 33 cents per pound for oranges, may increase retail prices as soon as today. Chains such Safeway, Lucky's and Albertsons had no immediate comment on how the freeze would affect retail citrus prices.
Steve DelMasso, vice president of Bay Cities Produce Co. in Oakland's produce market, said the price of juice oranges from Texas rose by 30 percent to 40 percent.
"I don't think you'll see the retail effect to [consumers] until maybe Thursday or Friday," he said. "And they don't need to buy an orange. Maybe they'll buy an apple."
He also cautioned that farmers and packers in coming weeks will be under pressure to sell as many oranges as they can, so consumers can expect dry or poor quality oranges.
Dave Roth, president of Cecelia Packing Corp. in Orange Cove, said that, despite the optimism, freeze damage will cut severely into the $12 million to $15 million in revenue that had been expected from this year's orange crop, which normally would be packed through summer. Roth said he expects to lay off 100 of the 116 plant employees until the next orange harvest starts in October.
"That will have a snowball effect" on the local economy, Roth said. "That payroll runs close to a million and a half dollars a year."
Pub Date: 12/30/98