HANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Citrus growers in California’s San Joaquin Valley are preparing to fight off crop-damaging frost as a cold front moves into the region.

The National Weather Service has issued a freeze watch for this week, covering key citrus-growing areas in the central and southern parts of the valley.

Temperatures could drop below 28 degrees late Wednesday into Thursday, which can damage citrus if the cold endures for more than three hours.

“We normally anticipate freeze events to occur from December into January, it’s rare this early into the season,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.

“The combination of early frost and the crop being so late this year makes us vulnerable.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates California will produce about 93 million cartons of navel oranges in the 2010-2011 season, and most of that is grown in the Central Valley.

Nelsen said most of this year’s crop has still not been harvested, and that about 95 percent to 98 percent of the fruit in the nation’s largest fresh orange producing area is vulnerable.

Still, growers have tools to battle the cold and were busy Tuesday preparing.

Many begin frost protections by pumping warm water into the orchards in the afternoon. Next, they prepare wind machines that will pull in warm air from about 50 feet above ground when temperatures drop.

Each wind machine can cover 10-to-18 acres, helping to raise the temperature by 3 or 4 degrees.

While most expect the crop to be OK, growers will stay up overnight to monitor temperatures, turning on the machines once the thermometer hits 29.

“I have close to 100 wind machines,” said Nick Hill of Greenleaf Farms in Dinuba. Hill on Tuesday was preparing his 1,400 acres of young lemons, tangerines, tangelos, grapefruit and oranges for the cold.

“It’s so early in the season, there’s not a lot of high sugar in the fruit yet, which helps protect it. And the trees haven’t adapted to the cold weather yet so we have to be careful,” Hill said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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