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Cold still threatens crops, but it’s easing

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Ice covers an orange at an orange grove in Redlands, Calif., Tuesday. A cold snap that has California farmers struggling to protect a $1.5 billion citrus crop has slowly started to ease, though frigid temperatures were still the norm throughout the state and across other parts of the West.

FRESNO, Calif. — The freeze gripping the West appears on the verge of easing, but farmers who spent millions to protect crops were still assessing damage. The National Weather Service predicted another frosty night, but said temperatures would begin to warm as high pressure moved east.

For a fifth night, temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural heart, dipped below freezing, though they were a few degrees warmer than previous nights, said Paul Story of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, an association of citrus growers.

Growers, who have about $1.5 billion worth of citrus fruit on the trees, used wind machines to keep warmer air closer to the ground and irrigation to raise temperatures.

Citrus growers statewide spent more than $23 million over five nights to save their crops, the association estimated.

But in some areas, that wasn’t enough.

We definitely had some damage, but it’s hard to tell how much,” Story said, adding that the fruit’s maturity and high sugar content helped protect much of the crop.

Crop damage estimates weren’t yet available, growers said, because for some varieties damage isn’t visible for days or weeks. Initial reports indicated up to 6 percent of the state’s orange crop was damaged and up to 9 percent of the mandarin crop, Story said.

Despite damage, Story said, plenty of good citrus is left on trees.

The fact is, we have a lot of good quality fruit to sell,” Story said.

California’s strawberry growers also were using wind machines, sprinklers and helicopters, said Carolyn O’Donnell with the state Strawberry Commission. In Oxnard and Santa Maria, growers who lacked frost protection saw damage to flowers and fruit in their early berry varieties.

The cold also damaged the southwestern lettuce crop. In Yuma, Ariz., an area which provides much of the nation’s leafy greens during the winter, farmers reported damage to romaine and iceberg lettuce crops. Victor Smith of JV Smith Companies, which farms 15,000 acres of vegetables in Yuma and Mexico, said workers had to peel off layers of lettuce that turned brown before selling it.

It’s creating a lot of extra work and strain,” Smith said. “Right now supplies are very tight and the market is very uncertain.”

Kurt Nolte, an agricultural agent for the University of Arizona, said that translates into higher prices for the consumer. The price for a head of iceberg lettuce recently doubled to $2 at a grocery store. Cartons of lettuce during the warm spell were selling for $8 but now are as high as $30 on the spot market, he said.

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