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SLIM PICKINS AT FARMERS MARKETS FREEZE FELT WITH FEWER CHOICES, HIGHER PRICES.

Byline: DANA BARTHOLOMEW Staff Writer

All the fresh produce you love, from strawberries and blueberries to avocados and oranges, could be either slim pickings or pricey in coming weeks because of the historic freeze that destroyed more than $1 billion worth of California crops earlier this month.

And for those who troll Los Angeles farmers markets, the pending damage could mean fewer newly picked veggies and more frozen peas with dinner.

At the Hollywood Farmers' Market on Santa Monica Boulevard, shoppers and growers were blue.

``They didn't have any sweet chard because of the cold weather, and that's what I came for,'' said Kathy Mendelson of Silver Lake, who was shopping for the leafy greens her Southern mother prepared for her as a child.

``I'm super disappointed.''

Produce the freeze affected, such as strawberries, celery and asparagus, was available but sold for about 50 cents more a pound, vendor Ricardo Martinez said.

Jim Van Foeken, a grower with 32 acres in Ivanhoe, Calif., near Visalia, said despite enduring 20-degree temperatures for a couple of nights, his citrus crops appear to have escaped damage, but he's not out of the woods yet.

``Rind damage and stem damage can show up much later,'' said Van Foeken, who sells his fruit at farmers markets through Cottage Grove Fruit Sales.

``The jury's still out on Valencias,'' he added.

The California citrus industry lost $800 million worth of crops during the five-day freeze last week, according to a preliminary report. In Ventura County, the figure reached a record $281 million.

As the losses mount, prices for lettuce, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, strawberries, celery and other goods grown in California have already begun to rise as grocers import produce from Mexico and beyond.

And at farmers markets, which showcase the freshest of produce, consumers' pocketbooks were already feeling the pinch.

At today's Glendale Certified Farmers' Market, early strawberries have already run short. Chinese vegetables from as far away as Fresno were lost. And one Riverside vender lost half his melons.

Supplies dwindling

As vendors count their losses, pre-freeze citrus and avocado supplies dwindle.

``Our markets, you're not going to see much difference -- yet -- because a lot of the producers had citrus and avocados in storage,'' said Christopher Nyerges, manager of the Glendale and Highland farmers markets. ``(But) you will start seeing the effects by next week, or the week after.''

At the farmers market Sunday in Valencia, where only two-thirds of the growers showed up, bins were slim because winter row crops such as lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli had simply quit growing.

``They didn't die; they were just semi-dormant,'' said Karen Schott, operations manager for the Ventura County Certified Farmers' Market, which traveled to Valencia on Sunday.

Across the state, more than 70 percent of the citrus crop was lost during the frost, ruining most navel and Valencia oranges and damaging lemon trees in the Imperial Valley, said Joel Nelsen, president of the California Citrus Mutual, a trade group.

``We expect that number to grow,'' he said. ``We're going to find more damages along the way.''

Not just citrus crops

While the freeze knocked out the entire citrus crop in 1990, recent 20-degree temperatures hit a broader swath of crops, prompting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in 15 counties. The Golden State generates $32billion a year in crops and agricultural goods.

Craig Underwood of Underwood Farms in Somis lost 42acres of blueberries -- last year worth upward of $600,000 -- from the Santa Rosa Valley to San Diego.

``Everything from blooms to ripe fruit was wiped out,'' said Underwood, who sells blueberries and other crops at farmers markets in Calabasas, Encino and elsewhere. ``Now, we won't have any until the middle of May.''

In addition to a wide range of damaged crops, Underwood lost 3acres of artichokes, 12acres of fennel, a year's worth of lemons and three years' worth of avocado crops.

A box of celery that once sold for $20 now goes for $30. ``Across the board, produce will be more expensive,'' he said.

Earl McPhail, Ventura County's agricultural commissioner, said last week's loss was historic partly because the damaged crops were worth more than during past freezes.

The $281 million loss reported by farmers and verified by the Agricultural Commissioner's Office included $85.4million to plants grown in nurseries new to the county.

Such tree and shrub nurseries, two-thirds of which moved to the county since 1990, generally sell larger and more expensive plants.

Many out of work

The county's annual crop is worth $1.25 billion, so a $281 million loss represents a major blow to growers -- including an estimated $66.5 million in avocados, $46.6 million in lemons and $26.1 million in strawberries.

The frost damage put many county farmworkers who would normally be harvesting these crops out of work, McPhail said.

But the strawberry harvest is expected to recover in the coming months, which could present labor shortage problems for strawberry growers if the currently unemployed farmworkers begin leaving the area.

``We're concerned they will find jobs somewhere else and won't be there when we go back into production in five to six weeks,'' McPhail said.

While Nyerges said root crops such as potatoes, beets and radishes were unaffected, he also said farmers weren't likely to bring bad produce to market.

But the season, he said, could still usher the worse for greens.

``This isn't necessarily over,'' he said. ``It's still winter, and we could have another freeze.''

That means shoppers such as Charles Adelman of Hollywood will have limited choices at the farmers market and in the produce aisle.

``I hear cabbage does pretty good in cold weather,'' he said at Wednesday's Hollywood Farmers' Market. ``How much cole slaw can you eat? How much cooked cabbage can you eat?''

Staff Writers Patricia Farrell Aidem, Rick Coca and Eric Leach and wire services contributed to this report.

dana.bartholomew(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3730

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Clara Choquin and her grandson Jimmy Molina of Hollywood look over fruit Wednesday while Patricia Villamaria sorts oranges at the Hollywood Farmers' Market on Santa Monica Boulevard. This month's historic freeze destroyed more than $1 billion worth of California crops, leaving slim, and more expensive, pickings.

(3) Kathy Mendelson of Silver Lake is disappointed she can't find sweet chard Wednesday at the Hollywood Farmers' Market.

David Sprague/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 25, 2007
Words:1064
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