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Freezing temps have Merced County farmers on edge as many try to protect crops

Icicles caused by irrigation by nearby sprinkler to protect against frost, cling to branches of a fruit tree loaded with oranges east of Fresno, early Tuesday morning.
Icicles caused by irrigation by nearby sprinkler to protect against frost, cling to branches of a fruit tree loaded with oranges east of Fresno, early Tuesday morning. jwalker@fresnobee.com

An early morning freeze put area farmers on full alert Tuesday, but the damage – if any – may not show up for days or even weeks.

Citrus growers are more often the victims of freezing weather, but almond farmers took notice Tuesday. J. Marchini Farms in Le Grand posted on the company Instagram account about the weather.

The temperature dipped below 30 degrees in Tuesday’s early morning hours. The National Weather Service in Hanford is forecasting low to mid-30s in the early hours of Wednesday.

“Extreme weather conditions in Le Grand, (25 degrees),” the Le Grand farm’s post said Tuesday. “Which is way too cold for almond blossoms. Let’s hope it doesn’t affect our 2018 crop.”

Freezing temperatures have also put almond growers on the defense in the Valley, where grower Don Cameron began watering his almonds several days ago to help raise the temperature in his orchards. The more humidity that’s created, the more slowly the temperature will drop.

Cameron, who farms near the western border of Fresno County, said the temperature dropped to the upper 20s early Tuesday morning. Sub-freezing temperatures could damage the buds on blooming nut trees.

If there is damage, growers will see an increase in buds dropping off their trees within a few weeks.

Also of concern are the cool daytime temperatures this time of the year. This is prime pollination time for the state’s almond industry. Millions of bees are needed to pollinate the hundreds of thousands of almond acres. But bees don’t like cool temperatures. They work best when the temperature is 55 degrees and above.

“The period of time to pollinate is really limited,” Cameron said. “And from what I have seen, we have a fairly cool period of weather that we still have to get through.”

Citrus growers, whose crops are among the most susceptible to sub-freezing temperatures, saw the thermostat drop to the low 20s for up to five hours in the coldest areas of the San Joaquin Valley. Many deployed frost-protection measures including wind machines and irrigation water to try to prevent any damage.

Citrus industry officials say the frost protections combined with mature fruit may have saved this year’s citrus crop. About half of the navel and mandarin citrus crop remains on the tree.

“Given the timing of this freeze event and the good size and sugar content of the crop at this point in the season, growers do not anticipate any damage,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.

Nelsen said citrus trees have started blooming two to four weeks earlier than usual.

“Drastic swings in temperature such as what we are experiencing now may cause the early, fragile blooms to drop, which could translate to a smaller crop for the 2018-19 season,” Nelsen said. “The coming days will reveal if damage was incurred. Growers are optimistic that if there is damage the trees will have ample time to bounce back and push out another set of blooms this spring.”

Merced Sun-Star reporter Thaddeus Miller contributed to this report.

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