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20110203_Citrus-Harvest-Cold-Weather_004MISSION — Days after the community celebrated one of its oldest industries at the Texas Citrus Fiesta, local citrus growers were tending to their trees trying to determine if next year’s crop would be hindered by last week’s big chill.

“We’re very encouraged,” said Texas Citrus Mutual President Ray Prewett on Monday. “Up to this point, we see no real signs of damage.”

While there were reports of ice on trees, Prewett said there was no ice reported inside fruit that would cause damage to the fruit.

Local citrus growers said irrigation, quick harvesting and better-than-expected temperatures helped keep citrus trees here safe.

“It’s all good,” said Dennis Holbrook, the owner of South Texas Organics in Mission.

For about four nights last week, the Rio Grande Valley endured freezing temperatures that prompted power outages and school closures. The extreme cold also left a number of local citrus companies racing against the clock to save their citrus before the temperatures dropped even lower.

“We do some irrigation where we can,” Holbrook said of preparing for the cold nights.

Irrigating citrus provides trees with additional heat to help battle the cold temperatures, which last week stayed in the mid to upper 20-degree range.

“That’s about all we can do,” Holbrook said.

Like growers in Florida, several growers here use micro sprinkler systems that are raised about three feet off the ground to spray water at the trunk of the tree.

“That provides insulation or a blanket,” Prewett said of the ice left on the tree and fruit. “Ice is generally not a problem.”

Last week, it was still to early to tell how the fruit or trees was affected by the chilly weather, but on Feb. 4, South Texas Organics workers were harvesting off of Moorefield Road before the weather got any colder.

Holbrook said the harvesting ensured the company would have useable fruit to sell to its customers this week, but also explained that a number of customers, already unsure of what the extreme weather would do to local citrus, placed orders earlier in the week, pushing the company into overdrive.

Meteorologists with Brownsville’s National Weather Service office said last week’s cold spell was similar to a weather event in 1989 that left a number of citrus grooves extremely vulnerable. There were significant differences, however, in this event.

“This is not a killing freeze,” Meteorologist Barry Goldsmith. “This is not 1989 or December 1983. There’s a bit more moisture that won’t destroy the trees. It’s not the worst case scenario.”

The drizzling rain, which Goldsmith dubbed “snizzle,” was super cold water that, when it fell was frozen on contact, was found on dozens of tree leafs last week after the sleet, snow and ice rain made landfall in the Valley.

For other crops, like onions, it’s still too early to tell if there’s been any damage. Swiss chard and beets got hit hard, Prewett said.

With the moisture from sleet on Feb. 3 to the next morning, the biggest help last week was the temperatures not getting as low as initially forecasted, Prewett said.

Aside from damage to fruit that was left on trees, the freezing weather could also affect the tree itself. Small twigs on trees might have been affected by last week’s weather, but it’s still too early to tell if any of that damage exists, and if it does, how it could affect that tree in the coming year.

The citrus season here generally runs from October to April, Prewett said. Last week, about half of the grapefruit were still on Valley trees while about 30 percent of oranges still needed to be harvested.

“The irrigation helps, sure, but the biggest thing was it didn’t get as cold as expected,” Prewett said. “We’re pretty amazed we didn’t have more damage.”

For the fruit left on trees to be damaged inside, the weather would have had to stay below 28 degrees for at least four hours, Prewett said. As last week’s freeze stuck around 32 degrees, there was no harm to the fruit.

Had the temperatures been colder for longer periods of time, Prewett said the fruit still could have been sold for juice production, explaining once the damage is determined, it’s a race against the clock to get the damaged fruit out to the Texas Citrus Exchange.

“But that didn’t happen,” he said. “You don’t see lines of trucks at juice plants.”

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