FRESH FOOD: Produce Trends: Cold comfort

Five consecutive nights of subfreezing temperatures in California added up to an estimated $750 million-plus worth of devastated citrus, avocado, and strawberry crops. As grocers and shoppers alike get ready for price hikes to peak by spring, however, not all will be lost.

In California's Central Valley, the hardest hit of the state's growing regions, growers were still assessing their losses at presstime, but the impact has already been branded "significant and severe" by the state's agriculture leaders.

The consumer press, meanwhile, was frantically cautioning consumers to be on guard for sticker shock in supermarket produce departments.

Stores aren't likely to feel the full brunt of the freeze until spring. Even if it's safe to assume most consumers have been adequately warned of higher prices to come, and in turn will make other fruit selections, the freeze was expected to affect thousands of jobs and drain untold dollars from the Golden State's agriculture-intensive economy.

The state's prized navel orange crop, already expected to be lighter than last year's, didn't stand a chance against the bitter cold. The weather also wreaked havoc on avocados, strawberries, leafy greens, cabbage, celery, onions, and the nursery industry.

In the immediate wake of the freeze, Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers, the nation's oldest and largest citrus marketing co-op, posted an open letter to customers and consumers undersigned by its president and c.e.o., Tim Lindgren, with the bad news of the impact.

"Mother Nature is once again reminding us all that agriculture is a precarious business," wrote Lindgren. "The freezing temperatures of the past few nights have caused significant crop damage in all growing areas, on all varieties. Based on history and the nature of this arctic blast, we unfortunately anticipate huge losses. Some of our growers have sadly lost all the fruit on their trees.

"Sunkist takes a lot of pride in its commitment to providing your family with quality fruit," continued Lindgren. "These harsh weather conditions come just as we are preparing for the peak of the season on navel oranges, mandarins, tangerines, pummelos, moro blood oranges, and cara cara oranges. It is truly heartbreaking for our growers to nurture the trees and the fruit for so long, only to see our efforts lost just before the harvest....We ask for your patience and understanding during this difficult time. The entire Sunkist organization is working diligently through this crisis to deliver the best possible fruit available."

'Operation Orange Aid'

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, one of the largest California citrus customers in the United States, stepped up with a lifeline to help the state's growers deal with the weather-related crisis, via an initiative dubbed "Operation Orange Aid." According to Ron McCormick, Wal-Mart's v.p. of produce, the program is "designed to support quality, locally grown offerings while also reaching out to California growers during a challenging time."

McCormick says Wal-Mart, which "buys more U.S. agricultural products than any other retailer in the world," pledged to work with suppliers throughout the upcoming fiscal year to revise previously agreed-upon contracts, to put them more in line with present conditions. He also says the retailer will purchase more available product, and stock California-grown citrus when possible.

The chain also announced a $250,000 corporate donation to the American Red Cross, designated for national relief efforts surrounding the widespread winter storm. "It is imperative that we support our local growers during both the good times and the hard times," notes McCormick.

After the big chill, the Irvine, Calif.-based California Avocado Commission (CAC) braced the trade for losses anticipated to be in the 10 percent to 20 percent range of 2007's projected 400 million-pound crop, and at the same time reaffirmed the growers' commitments to retailers for the high-consumption Super Bowl weekend (Feb. 4 to Feb. 5) -- albeit at a higher price.

Jan DeLyser, CAC's v.p. of marketing, says the state's 6,500 avocado growers, who farm 60,000 acres, are ready to meet consumer demand for most of the year.

Meanwhile, weather-related damage to California strawberries, while extensive, will have only a short-term impact on the state's year-round crop, according to the California Strawberry Commission (CSC). The commission labels the weather event a "temporary setback," and expects normal volumes to take about six weeks to return.

"It's winter, and we expect bad weather," says the CSC's Mark Murai. "Farmers recognize that when we get an extra chill, it's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be beneficial. It can stimulate production later, and we could end up with a very good year."

January and February are the lowest-producing months for California strawberries. Unlike other plants that yield only one crop annually, strawberry plants continually produce fruit throughout the year; thus, growers have so far only lost a portion of the fruit that was on the plants during the big chill.

Silver lining

With the worst crop freeze in a decade a memory by the third week of January, other key crops -- namely peaches, cherries, and grapes -- not only escaped severe damage, but actually benefited from the frigid temperatures, which help trees and vines bloom properly to produce quality fruit.

Indeed, a good solid chill on stone fruit and grapes is a welcome scenario, and doubly so for growers in other states, who will likely also see their fortunes rise with fruits like apples and pears. Indeed, while they sympathize with California citrus growers, U.S. apple grower-shippers are ready and willing to help retailers fill the void on produce department shelves.

Even before the California freeze, the U.S. apple market was poised to shine brighter with consumers this year, with fewer apples in storage, and movement at a higher pace than in 2005. Michigan recorded its highest production numbers in five years this season -- 22 million to 23 million bushels, according to the DeWitt, Mich.-based Michigan Apple Committee (MAC), which is currently conducting health-related consumer promotions in its home state and in the Chicago marketplace.

"The taste you love...the shape you want" is the message presented in MAC's new advertising campaign, which got underway this month with billboards featuring a shapely apple core with a tape measure around its midsection.

"While apples have long been associated with good health, we want to emphasize that adding Michigan apples to your diet will not only make you feel better, but can also make you look better," says Denise Yockey, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

The Michigan apple billboard campaign, which will run through February, features four locations in Detroit, two in Grand Rapids, and five in Chicago. The organization is also offering retailers a winter rebate program.

Up in Washington state, nearly all varieties were in good shape, both in terms of quality and quantity, according to the Washington Apple Commission, which said its growers had 58 million bushels left of a 95.4 million-bushel crop. Last year the state produced 100 million bushels, and the previous year saw a record 105 million bushels.

New York State apple supplies are also abundant, according to the Fishers, N.Y.-based New York Apple Association, which is currently rolling out statewide through TV and print advertising a winter promotion in New York City that will tie in with the Broadway play "The Apple Tree."

A marketing program in March will tie in eating apples with funding cancer research. Participating retailers will display signs over their apple displays, telling how the industry will make a $25,000 donation to the American Cancer Society.
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