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FRESNO, CA -- Harvesting of citrus in California's San Joaquin Valley and of strawberries and vegetables in the coastal areas of Southern California began returning to normal the week of Jan. 3, after being disrupted by unusually heavy rainfall during much of December.

The timing of the rainfall resulted in the loss of an important marketing window for growers of Navel oranges and mandarins. "Approximately 80 to 85 percent of the billion-dollar crop remains on the tree in a season that started late for maturity reasons and was heavily interrupted because of record- setting rains in December," according to a Dec. 31 press release from California Citrus Mutual.

"It is estimated that over 80 million five-pound cartons of mandarins remain on the tree with a value exceeding $400 million. At lest 75 million 40-pound cartons of Navel oranges are still on the tree" with an estimated crop value of $750 million for the San Joaquin Valley, the release said. In addition, 10,000 acres of lemons, valued at around $100,00, "have yet to be harvested." Heavy rainfall continued through Sunday, Jan. 2, but by Monday, the storm systems had cleared out of the area, and the 15-day Accuweather forecast was calling for little if any rainfall over the ensuing two weeks.

"Now that the rain has stopped, as each grove dries out, [growers] will be able to get back in and start picking again," Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual, told The Produce News Tuesday, Jan. 4. "There were a few people picking yesterday, and there are even more places they can get in today. Over the next three to four days, they will try to get back and resume normal operations."

But "we are 2 [million] to 2.5 million cartons behind where we would normally be, shipped season to date," he said. The combination of late maturity in the crop and interruption of harvest due to heavy and persistent rainfall "has created some lost opportunity."

Those lost opportunities were not only in the domestic market but, for citrus, significantly in the export market. "The early Chinese New Year coupled with normal export demand" during that period "cannot be made up, unfortunately," CCM President Joel Nelsen said in the Dec. 31 release. With each unit of citrus for export valued at $15, some $150 million of lost market opportunity had occurred as of that date.

"Inventories are exhausted, and retail demand will materialize next week," the release stated. "It will take at least 48 to 72 hours of dry weather before the industry can resume normal harvesting operations.

There are 70 packinghouses, approximately 3,000 growers and 12,000 employees "eagerly waiting to resume the season," according to the release.

"Apparently, we are done with the rain for a while," said Mr. Blakely. "Now we will just see if it does not get too cold."

The citrus crop will remain vulnerable to frost for several weeks yet. So far this season, the industry has survived two potentially damaging freezes -- one early frost at the end of November and a second one the night of Dec. 30 when temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley dropped rapidly, getting as low as 27 degrees in places. Fortunately, in both instances growers were able to maintain temperatures high enough in their groves to avert damage through the implementation of various frost-protection techniques that, while effective, are also costly.

"Raw costs for frost protection" just for the night of Dec. 30 "are estimated to be $55 million," according to the press release.

The 15-day forecast called for lows higher than 32 degrees, so it appeared that there was no imminent threat of further frost. "We like the cold nights as long as we can stay just above freezing," Mr. Blakely said. "It will help bring the sugar up and bring the color out." So it will be "a good thing" if "we can stay right in the low to mid-30s at night, and dry for awhile."

There will be some quality problems in the crop as well from the prolonged wet weather, and the damage assessments "are going to take some time" because the problems do not manifest themselves immediately. "We are certainly going to see a drop in utilization" due to "quite a bit of rot and decay setting up here after that much rain." However, the industry is generally conscientious about sorting out problem fruit and keeping it out of the pack, so while the packout and, hence, the total volume of fruit shipped, will be affected, the fruit that goes to market should be free from those types of quality issues.

Meanwhile, in the Oxnard area, the strawberry harvest was also getting set to return to normal following the cessation of the rainy period. Winter strawberry volume is generally light out of Oxnard in any case, and growers expect some rains during the winter and an accompanying disruption of harvest, as a normal course of events, although the timing and duration of the disruptions will vary from year to year.

With rains ending Jan. 2 and no more rain in the forecast for a while, the week of Jan. 3 was setting up to be "the first dry week in a long time," said David Cook, salesman at Deardorff Family Farms in Oxnard, which grows both strawberries and vegetables in the Oxnard area.

Rainfall to date, since the beginning of the water-year last fall, is "so far ahead of normal it is amazing," he said. "I think for strawberries, long term it is probably beneficial," but it has been "almost too much of a good thing."

Berries that were on the plants when the rains started had to be stripped off," so in the short term, the harvest and shipping were disrupted. But "there weren't that many berries to wash out, so it is not a major deal."

Deardorff's vegetable crops were affected as well. Romaine and leaf lettuce "didn't take that much water that well," he said, and "cabbage was hard to harvest for a while. But we are back in now without too much problem."

Celery, a major commodity for Deardorff, generally likes rain, but there had been so much of it in December that it "upset the growing cycle of the plant. … Most of the celery around here has one problem or another right now, which will take some time to work through," Mr. Cook said. "But a week of dry weather would really help a lot."

Although vegetable planting schedules were also disrupted by wet fields, Mr. Cook does not expect to see any significant planting gaps if the weather remains dry for the next week or so, because growers "have a way" of farming the crops that will effectively close the gaps.

The most beneficial effect of all of the rainfall for California agriculture, combined with snowfall levels that are well above normal year-to-date, is that the outlook for water deliveries to farms is expected to be much better than it has been the last couple of years. A Dec. 28 press release from the California Department of Water Resources noted that Sierra snowpack was "198 percent of normal for the date." That "boosts our hopes that we will have an adequate water supply for our cities and farms" following several years of drought, according to DWR Director Mark Cowin.

On Dec. 17, DWR estimated that it would be able to deliver 50 percent of requested State Water Project water in 2011 based on conditions to date, and that is "all-but-certain to increase" based on the increased snowpack since that date and what may yet come, according to the release.