California Freeze Puts Squeeze on Citrus Crop

Wholesale distributor Mario Alvarez Jr. talks on the phone to a representative at the Los Angeles Produce Market.
Wholesale distributor Mario Alvarez Jr. talks on the phone to a representative at the Los Angeles Produce Market. (By Ric Francis -- Associated Press)

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By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2007

Take a big bite of that juicy navel orange. It may be the last one you enjoy for a while.

More than a week of icy temperatures in California damaged an estimated $500 million or more of fruit and vegetable crops. With another dip in the mercury predicted for early next week, the worst freeze in California in eight years is not over. And consumers nationwide are likely to see its effects for weeks and even months on their grocery bills.

"Consumers can expect to see higher prices on produce," Giant Food spokesman Barry F. Scher said.

The only question is how much higher. Growers, retailers, economists and government officials say they will not know that until the cold spell ends and they can finish assessing the damage.

"Everything is a guess at this point," said Claire Smith, a spokeswoman for Sunkist Growers, a cooperative of 6,000 California and Arizona citrus growers.

Prices for navel oranges may begin rising as early as next week and might not go down until late spring, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, which represents 2,000 citrus growers.

California growers do know they will be shipping fewer oranges, avocados, strawberries, artichokes, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and celery. They expect, however, that the supply of strawberries could bounce back quickly. Plants that were not damaged by the cold temperatures should be able to produce more fruit in another four to six weeks, said Peggy Dillon of the California Strawberry Commission.

Artichoke farmers are hopeful that freeze-damaged plants will yield another harvest in two months, said Doug Mosebar, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. And lettuce is grown year-round in different parts of California and Arizona, so any interruption in production is likely to be temporary.

Retailers may also be able to spare consumers large spikes in the prices of some commodities by turning to other domestic and foreign sources -- Mexico for avocados, Florida for Valencia oranges and grapefruit.

"Giant, like every other retailer, will be looking for alternatives if we are unable to purchase from our regular vendors," Scher said.

The disruption in the supply of California oranges, however, will be harder to contain, economists and industry leaders predicted.

California is the nation's top producer of table citrus and about three-quarters of the annual crop was still on trees when the freeze set in during the wee hours of Jan. 12, turning the insides of much of the crop to mush.

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