COLD WEATHER IN CALIF. POSES NO THREAT YET TO CITRUS CROP

COLD WEATHER IN CALIF. POSES NO THREAT YET TO CITRUS CROP

Temperatures as low as 26 degrees crept into the vast citrus belt east of Visalia, Calif., over the Thanksgiving weekend where a frigid 12-day snap three years ago crippled the orange-growing industry and left 20,000 people without jobs.

But the big chill over the holiday hasn't raised the specter of 1990, growers said."This is not bad," said Buzz Barnes, an orange grower in Strathmore. The cold is "coloring up the fruit nicely," he said.

He said the temperature dropped to about about 28 degrees Fahrenheit Thursday night.

Mr. Barnes and other growers used wind machines this week to coax temperatures up a degree or two when the thermometers hit the high 20s.

The machines stir the atmosphere and bring down warmer air trapped below the San Joaquin Valley's inversion layer. The warmer air keeps the fruit from freezing and withering.

"In 1990, the temperature dropped and stayed down," said Chris McLain, whose orange groves are east of Visalia. "Nothing could have stopped the temperatures from doing what they did to the fruit."

The aftermath of the 1990 freeze was losses of $1.5 billion for growers, packers and associated industries. The industry has rebounded with two good seasons, and this one shows promise too, Mr. McLain said.

However, the first solid freeze of fall last week did set off temperature alarms in orange groves all over eastern Tulare County. The alarms usually are set to sound off at about 30 degrees.

Now, most citrus growers in the San Joaquin Valley will sleep with one eye open until the crop is picked in winter.

Lyle Hammer, U.S. Weather Service meteorologist, said the coldest readings last week weren't in the citrus groves. "We have a station just north of Fresno that recorded 23 degrees this week. That doesn't hurt the oranges.

Florida, which is the largest domestic producer, has almost 600,000 acres of commercial citrus. Most of it is processed into juice, but its fresh-fruit exports to other citrus-growing states constitute an annual market of about $25 million.