Jan. 24, 2013
Hannah Guzik, OVN corrrespondent
As much as 40 percent of Ojai’s Pixie tangerine crop could have been lost in early January’s cold snap, but growers won’t be able to tell the extent of the damage for a few more weeks.
The Ojai Pixie Growers Association was hoping to bring in its biggest crop ever this year, but as many as 8 million pounds of tangerines may have been damaged by frost during four consecutive nights of below-freezing temperatures, said Emily Ayala, association member and secretary.
“Ojai has varied topography, so the fruit on the edges of the valley was warmer and is fine,” she said. “It’s the fruit in between that we’re not real clear on. As it grows, it’ll show if it’s damaged.”
The association knows that about 1.2 million pounds of pixies, primarily on the valley’s fringes, survived the cold nights of Jan. 11 through Jan. 14, she said.
Ojai has about 400 acres of tangerine trees and the association was hoping they would produce more than 2 million pounds of sellable fruit this year. The tangerine crop brings about $2 million to the valley annually, Ayala said.
California’s Central Valley produces the bulk of the state’s tangerines, on 40,000 acres, so that region sets the price of the fruit each year, depending on yields.
“If they got frozen out, we get to raise our prices,” Ayala said. “We’re waiting to see how much damage there was.”
One large Central Valley grower hired 400 pickers three days before the freeze to try to save as much fruit as possible, she said.
The area’s last significant freeze occurred in 2007, when Ojai lost between 30 and 40 percent of its Pixie crop, Ayala said. Other crops were also damaged, and the California Farm Bureau set up a relief fund that year to help agriculture workers, she said.
“In a freeze, it’s not necessarily the landowner or farmer who’s hit worst, but the (agricultural) employees or pickers,” she said. “Those are the people living check to check, and they suffer.”
When tangerines freeze, the vesicles of juice inside them burst, causing the fruit to dry out over time. Low temperatures can also result in dark spots on the peel of the fruit.
To try to prevent frost damage, growers run wind machines to bring warmer air to ground level and irrigate trees, because when water freezes, it gives off small amounts of heat. Tangerine growers don’t like to see temperatures dip below 32 degrees, and during this month’s cold snap, the mercury fell to 24 degrees on the valley floor at least once, Ayala said.
Ojai has 42 farmers who grow pixies, and 30 of those are in areas where temperatures dipped significantly, Ayala said. She expects to see the most damage in the coldest parts of the city, along Boardman Road and Ojai Avenue.
“A lot of growers in Ojai are small, 5- to 10-acre growers, so something like this — with the cost of the land and the water so high that farmers are barely making it anyway — might be enough to send someone to call up the bulldozer and say forget it,” she said.
Jim Churchill, who grows tangerines and avocados on 17 acres in Ojai’s East End with his wife, Lisa Brenneis, said temperatures fell to 26 degrees at least once in his orchard, but didn’t stay low long enough to damage his crop.
“We think that our particular orchard is OK, but we suspect there are orchards in other parts of the valley that got colder for longer,” he said.
Churchill got little rest during the cold snap because he was constantly monitoring temperatures so he would know when to switch on his wind machines and irrigate, he said.
Growers have spent nearly a year tending to the tangerines and watering them through the hot summer, so it’s extremely frustrating to have a cold snap so close to the March and April picking season, Ayala said.
If consumers happen to bite into a dry tangerine, they should return the fruit to the grocery store where they bought it. Some unscrupulous farmers try to sell their frost-damaged fruit, which is illegal, Ayala said.
“I always tell people, if you buy a tangerine that’s dry, you should return it to the store,” she said. “Everybody loses when people sell bad fruit.”
The Ojai Pixie Growers Association has a “zero-tolerance policy” against selling frost-damaged fruit, Ayala said.
“We really focus on selling the best fruit,” she said. “We think we have the best tangerines in the world, but we’re a little biased.”