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California citrus looking healthy after last season’s freeze

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FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- Almost a year after 80 percent of California's citrus crop was destroyed in a freeze, growers say their orange trees are fully recovered and this year's harvest should lure wary consumers back to the state's signature fruit.

The four-day freeze last December ruined $700 million in citrus crops, most of them orange and lemon orchards in the San Joaquin Valley."We were kind of the limping wounded," said Nick Hill, owner of Green Leaf Farms, a 1,500-acre citrus farm in Fresno County.

"Last year there was really no crop and what we tried to put on the market was a little damaged. Buyers were a little spooked, and we noticed that in February and March demand just dropped way off."

But this year, growers and government officials are predicting healthy crops of both Valencia and navel table oranges.

The 1999-2000 navel orange harvest is expected to come in at 80 million cartons weighing about 37 pounds each, with 75 million cartons coming from the San Joaquin Valley, according to a September report by the California Agricultural Statistics Service.

"It looks incredible really," said Shann Blue of California Citrus Mutual. "A year prior to the freeze, we had a statewide 88 million and 81 million cartons coming from the valley, so from a crop size point of view, it's very, very positive."

The navel harvest has just started in the southern part of the state -- about two weeks later than normal. Cool fall nights following a hot summer help the crops mature, but this year a warm October stalled initial picking schedules.

Growers also enthusiastically point to early signs that the state Valencia crop is on the mend, although the harvest for that fruit won't begin until June.

"Looks like Valencia crops have come back 100 percent," Hill said. "Everybody looks like they have good crops and nice quality on the trees."

This optimism is attributed to the valley's healthy Valencia and navel orange trees -- trees that didn't lose too many fruit-bearing limbs during December's cold snap.

Many lemon trees in the Central Valley, however, were so brutalized by the frost that some orchards won't be producing any fruit at all this year.

Despite this, the lemon crop looks healthy, according to October forecasts from the California Department of Agriculture. The crop is expected to come in at 41 million 38-pound cartons -- up from 32.4 million cartons produced last year.

The positive forecasts mean business as usual for marketers, packers and retailers, according to Claire Peters, spokeswoman for Sunkist Growers, a cooperative representing about 6,500 growers and 60 packers in California and Arizona.

The state's market share for oranges dropped to almost nothing following last year's freeze, with consumers either turning to foreign citrus from places like New Zealand and Brazil, or switching entirely to other fruit varieties.

California's orange crops brought in about $585 million 1997, and the forecasts for the 1998 crop were similar. But instead of cashing in on the sunny fruit, farmers shelled out, on average, $1,500 an acre just to produce a crop that never made it off the trees.