Freezing temperatures damage some local crops

As temperatures have plunged into the frigid 20s and 30s around the county the last couple of nights, Alan Cavaletto has counted himself among the fortunate.

So far this week, temperatures have hovered just above the freezing point at Morro Creek Ranch off Highway 41 near Morro Bay, where Cavaletto manages 225 acres of Haas avocados—a fruit that can be lost to the cold.

“We lucked out the past few nights,” he said Friday, but noted that cold is still on the way. “It could be hail tonight. It could scar the fruit.”

Just the difference of a few degrees can make all the difference, and growers will go to great lengths to protect their crops.

“I have my helicopter on standby, propane in my machines, and irrigation system ready,” Cavaletto said.

The helicopter is used to direct warmer air downward, so that wind machines can circulate it. Keeping the plants wet all night can also prevent them from freezing.

“It’s wait, look, and see, I’m ready,” he said.

So far, the low temperatures don’t seem to have harmed avocado and citrus growers around San Luis Obispo County, said county agricultural commissioner Martin Settevendemie. But damage can take months to assess.

“The information we’ve received is that the citrus harvest is already completed. If there was any damage to the trees it would be too early to tell,” he said. “For avocados, the damage is going to depend on the extent and duration of the cold weather. Next year’s crop is on the trees now so if there is damage from this frost it would show up next year with a smaller crop.”

Some specialty crops such as blueberries and blackberries suffered with the cold, said Mark Gaskell, a farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension in San Luis Obispo.

“There has been significant damage with blueberries and blackberries,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t damage to other crops, too, depending on the location.”

Gaskell said blueberry and, to a lesser extent, blackberry growers have been benefitting from a good market because imported berries from South America haven’t yet arrived to drive down prices. The frost has put an end to that run of good fortune, he said.

“If you’re harvesting now, you’re getting very good prices,” he said. “Now all the flowers and fruits have dropped off so you’re out of the market for the next three months.”

Jim Terrick said temperatures in the 20s have started to take a toll on his crops at Los Osos Valley Organic Farm, despite covering some with fabric.

“It’s going to have a big impact because it’s day after day and for hours every night,” he said. “We’re going to have six days out of seven with temperatures well below freezing and that’s a problem.”

“A little frost really helps the flavor of the broccoli and cauliflower, but there’s a tipping point and that occurs at about 27 degrees,” he said. On Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, the thermometer dropped to 24 degrees, he said. The next night, it fell to 26 degrees.

“Our strawberry season is officially over,” he said. “It’s been a long season, though, so we’re thankful for that.”

A cold air mass combined with clear skies has produced the chilly temperatures this week. On Friday, the low was 17 degrees in Paso Robles and 27 degrees in San Luis Obispo, said PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey.

A cold low pressure system is expected to move in by Saturday morning, bringing rain starting at about 4 a.m. and continuing through the morning. The weather front could bring a light dusting of snow in the higher mountains around the county, but temperatures won’t go below the 30s for most areas.

That will change on Sunday and Monday when the thermometer is again expected to dip into the 20s or lower in some areas of the North County, Lindsey said.

Staff writer Julia Hickey also contributed to this story.