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San Diego Takes Stock of the Damage Caused by the Winter Freeze

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January 2007 brought record-breaking cold to San Diego County, of a length and severity not seen since the 1960s. For more than a week, temperatures were near freezing or below. Hardest hit was North County inland and coastal areas, where San Diego's agriculture industry is concentrated. The freeze cost the County close to $115 million. Producer Marianne Gerdes takes us on a tour of North County groves, nurseries and gardens where damage from the freeze is still being measured.

 No matter how you slice it -- "it's trashed"… "fried"… "toast"… "devastating" -- the freeze of January 2007 left its mark on San Diego's agricultural community. Several days of below-freezing temperatures bruised profits in an industry whose crop value is over a billion and a half dollars a year.

 
San Diego's North County is home to producers of avocados, cut flowers, and ornamental tree and shrub growers, just to name a few. Here, the impact of the freeze varied as much as the temperature.
Al Stehly: It looks good on the outside, but when you cut it, because of where it came from on inside it has the markings of being frost damaged and as it ripens it'll just look worse, like this one does.

 75 percent of the California avocado crop comes from San Diego County.   When temperatures approach freezing, growers run irrigation water that freezes and creates a protective coating of ice on the fruit. Al Stehly, a grower who manages this avocado grove in Valley Center says that technique saved some fruit…but not here.   

Stehly : It's been about 20, 30 years since we've had a freeze this bad. We had this grove covered with ice those four days and it didn't help. It only buys you a couple of degrees. When it gets that low, no matter what we do, it's not going to help.

The guys who only lost 20 to 30 percent of their grove will probably come out okay because the price on the remaining fruit will increase 20 to 30 percent to cover their loss. It's guys like this grove owner and this grove who lost 100 percent who have nothing to recover and probably won't for a couple of years.

 
For growers, timing is everything, and for the cut flower industry, January's freeze couldn't have come at a worse time. 

Ben Gill: You can see where the cold came in and aborted the head. We would have had these available for Valentine's Day.

Proteas are a striking and unusual plant in demand as a cut flower for arrangements. Some $76 million worth of crop is grown each year in San Diego County. Over 90 varieties of proteas flourished on Ben Gill's 10-acre hillside farm in Valley Center until the cold weather hit.

Gill: Pretty much what I see throughout this whole field is all the flowers that were ready to sell are non-usable. 

San Diego's warm climate brings products to market earlier than the rest of the state. Cut flowers can demand top dollar in winter months, especially around Valentine's Day. 

Gill: I was ready to cut these flowers for Valentines Day and as you can see I had quite a good crop on these and I think the frost came in on Sunday night and I came out on Monday morning and I could tell all my flowers were distorted and frosted and I was just sick. As a small grower this is just about wiping me out. I'm looking at a potential of eight years to recover the total production of what I have here so…I want to stay in the industry. I love it.  I've been in it 30 years so it's in my blood. I won't get out, I'll just do it again someplace else.

San Diego's most lucrative agricultural crop is the ornamental tree and shrub industry, grown on large nurseries, like Briggs Tree Company in Bonsall. The size and diversity of this operation helped minimize its losses.

Donnie Dabbs: It took quite a few days to assess the situations and how bad the damage was and we're still two weeks into it and still finding some damage but we're realizing that we're going to be able to recover with pruning and minimal death on our end.

Damage here isn't counted as a loss, but rather a delay in bringing product to market. And for those plants that survived unscathed… they're currently selling at a premium.    

Dabbs : Phoenix and Las Vegas got hit way harder than we did so right now a lot of our product is being shipped out of state so that's a big opportunity for the larger-size nurseries that can supply out of state customers.

For home gardeners, Donnie Dabbs warns not to be too hasty about removing frost-damaged plants.

Dabbs: You can see some of the frost damage and just because it's dry and crinkly doesn't mean the tree is dead or drying out, take a look here, all you have to do, simple little test, go up to the cambium layer, the skin of the tree, and scrape it with your finger nail or a little butter knife and if you see green, it means the tree or shrub is still alive. So before you panic and start pruning make sure you give it the scratch test and if you see green, there's life in the tree.

But even for seasoned gardeners, it's hard to wait. Nan Sterman is a gardening expert and writer who lives just a few miles from the coast. Her home garden in Olivenhain once looked like this.  Now it looks like this….

Nan Sterman: We had about three nights where temps reached about 19 degrees which is easily eight or nine degrees lower than we've ever had it before and my plants just fried. The agaves melted, other succulents melted, we have palm trees with tremendous damage.  My guava tree the leaves look freeze dried and it looks terrible.

Plants are beginning to recover….slowly, but whether they're your livelihood or your hobby, this winter's cold left most gardeners with little choice but to try again.

Sterman:   I don't find this to be a depressing situation. Some of my colleagues and friends are really depressed. I think this is fascinating. This is a chance to find out what works and what doesn't. And if something doesn't work there's no reason to be attached to it, you remove it and you put in something better, that's what's fun about gardening.

 Plant damage isn't limited to cultivated plants. Native vegetation like sumac and chaparral were hard hit by the cold. A spokesperson for CalFire says a greater than normal amount of frost-damaged vegetation has been observed in inland and coastal areas, and will be one more contributing factor to this year's fire danger.

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