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Wednesday, January 17, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cold sends orange prices soaring

Los Angeles Times

With half of California's navel orange crop destroyed by a cold snap, the wholesale price of the fruit soared Tuesday as agriculture officials warned that consumers soon would be paying more for other produce, such as avocados, carrots and lettuce.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Tuesday in 10 counties hardest hit, even as state officials predicted the frigid temperatures would continue in many agriculture zones through the weekend. Forecasters were predicting lows 7 to 10 degrees below normal this week, raising the specter of more crop damage.

In the strongest sign that the freeze will hit consumers, prices for navel oranges doubled at the wholesale level, with the highest-grade, large-sized navels increasing from about $17 per bushel last week to about $35 Tuesday, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

California is the nation's main source of navels, and, unlike other crops, there is little foreign supply.

California is the nation's No. 1 producer of fresh citrus, growing about 86 percent of lemons and 21 percent of oranges sold in the United States, according to the California Farm Bureau. Florida produces more citrus overall — about 55 percent of the nation's total, according to the USDA — but most of that state's oranges are processed for juice.

California supplies 85 percent to 90 percent of the nation's fresh domestic navel oranges and about the same percentage of fresh Valencias, according to Sunkist Growers.

"Expect retail prices to triple," said Todd Steele, owner of Royal Vista Marketing, a citrus brokerage in Visalia, Calif. The price spike is expected to hit supermarkets in the next two weeks, when the present inventory dwindles.

In Fresno County, in the hard-hit San Joaquin Valley, agricultural officials said they feared that the damage would go beyond oranges to the broccoli, beet, carrot and lettuce crops that just began to grow for winter harvest.

To meet the national need for fresh winter fruit and vegetables, distributors say they have already begun negotiations with growers in Chile and other food-exporting countries.

"We sent a buyer to Chile on Monday, and I'm on my way to Mexico tomorrow," said Brian Edmunds, vice president of Fillmore-Piru Citrus Exchange, standing on the floor of the packing facility in Piru, Calif. After several nights of freezing temperatures, the packinghouse was mostly quiet, with only a few sorters working on what was left of fruit picked before the cold snap hit last week.

Although the California avocado crop also has been seriously damaged, consumers will have more choices than with navel oranges. Avocados come in from Chile this time of year and from Mexico later in the year, said Chris Puentes, president of Interfresh, a distributor of citrus and avocados out of Fullerton, Calif.

Material from The Associated Press

is included in this report.

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