When you think citrus, you probably think sunshine and summertime. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a refreshing glass of lemonade on a hot summer’s day? Well, in California most of our citrus is harvested in the winter time. And subfreezing winter temperatures can keep a grower up at night – literally! When citrus is the victim of winter injury, farmers are left with unmarketable fruit, in turn causing an increase in citrus prices and less exported fruit. Rick Wescott farms 80 acres of navel oranges in Visalia, California. Keep reading to learn how the winter freeze impacts a farmer’s operation and the actions he takes to prevent frost damage.
1. How and when do cold temperatures start to affect citrus trees?
Usually, the fruit begins to freeze when the temperature drops below 28 degrees. However, temperature alone does not determine if you will have damage. The duration of the cold weather is what really determines whether your fruit will be damaged or not.
2. Why do citrus growers pay such close attention to winter temperatures?
There is a lot of missed opportunity for the citrus industry when the fruit becomes susceptible to winter injury. For example, if freeze damage occurs, a citrus farmer’s fruit is not marketable as fresh fruit. Instead, it has to be sent to the juice plant, which is much less profitable or break-even at best. So we watch the temperatures pretty closely during the winter months so that we can protect our oranges from freeze damage because it’s paramount to optimizing our revenues and incomes.
3. How do you protect your citrus crop from freeze damage?
From years of managing a citrus farm, I believe the best two protections against freeze are wind machines and water. Wind machines with auto-start technology are very efficient when it comes to preventing freeze damage. I, like most growers, have many wind machines to start, and sometimes that’s hard to do in a timely manner, but these new wind machines make my job easier. Other than wind machines, water must also be used when you know the temperatures are going to be low and the duration long.
4. What is a typical night on freeze watch like?
I sleep with a temperature alarm on my nightstand, which is set to 29 degrees. If the alarm goes off, that means I need to drive through the orchards and check the temperatures in each block to see if I have to start my wind machines or not.
5. Watching for freeze takes a lot of your time and energy. How does it impact your winter?
Watching for freeze is always a battle. You are always wondering if you started the water early enough. You always have to listen to the weather. If it’s cold, you have to start the wind machine, and on top of that, you have to get the water flowing before the pipes freeze up. But being a citrus grower, this is part of your life. From December to February, you have to stay close to home. You are always home for Christmas. There are no vacations at this time of year.