California Chill Hikes Produce Prices

AGRICULTURE and business officials Wednesday said prices for many fruits and vegetables from California could double or even triple because of the effects of two cold snaps in as many weeks. The two blasts of cold air sent normally balmy temperatures plummeting to below freezing, leading officials to paint a gloomy picture for consumers across the United States and Canada.

``We can expect very high prices for navel oranges, lemons, and tangerines,'' said Jan DeLyser, executive vice president of the Fresh Produce Council, a Los Angeles-based trade association.

Officials of the US Department of Agriculture Wednesday toured hard-hit regions to assess the need for federal aid to farmers.

The area worst hit by the ``Arctic Express,'' as weather forecasters dubbed the cold air mass, was the San Joaquin Valley northeast of Los Angeles, the state's main citrus-growing region.

Navel oranges were selling for $1 a pound in Los Angeles supermarkets Wednesday, up from 50 cents a week earlier. The price reflected a hike in the wholesale rate from $12 to more than $20 a box, Ms. DeLyser said.

Prices of California's winter vegetable crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce have also risen at the wholesale level and will soon go up in the stores, if they haven't already, she added.

California agricultural analyst Tom McNair said the second freeze, which hit over the weekend, was not as severe as the first and did less damage. ``But that's mainly because there were hardly any crops left to damage, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, because they were wiped out by the first freeze,'' he added.

Citrus trees, already weakened by the first freeze, could have been badly damaged by the second. ``We'll have to wait and see how bad the damage is. It could lead to a poor harvest next season,'' Mr. McNair said.

In Canada, officials said prices for California produce have risen dramatically. Oranges have doubled in price, lettuce costs 50 percent more, and vegetables like cauliflower were scarce.

``Everybody's trying to get produce from other areas to get us through this,'' said a produce buyer for the supermarket chain Dominion Stores Inc.

There was more bad news Wednesday from the California Department of Water Resources, which reported that its latest surveys in the Central Sierra show that water content in the snow pack is only about one-third of normal for early January.

``We are already part way through the months when rain and snow would be expected,'' a spokesman said. ``Now there is only a 10 percent chance of a year of normal precipitation. We appear to be headed for a fifth year of drought.''

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