It's ‘fingers crossed’ for Southland farmers as cold continues

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Across the fields of fertile Ventura County, farmers will watch the temperature gauge again tonight like stock brokers watch the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

“It was 26 degrees at 6 a.m.,” Bob Dautch said Sunday. “That’s right at the borderline.”

He has one more very cold night ahead before the weather's due to warm up.

Dautch grows Valencia oranges in Ojai, just below the mountains, at about 900 feet. He likes the forecast for higher winds over the next couple of days. It may send a chill through your bones, but it warms the branches and stems.

“Although the wind chill factor is lower, it keeps the cold from settling in,” he said. “So it has a beneficial effect for crops.”

Dautch, a small farmer who grows organic crops on four acres, can’t afford big wind machines so he depends on a good strong breeze.

“Nature provides its own wind machine” he said.

A spokesman at the National Weather Service office in Oxnard said Santa Ana winds should help over the next couple of days. Gusts could reach 35 miles per hour.

“These winds will start gradually warming up these bitterly cold temperatures,” said weather specialist Stewart Seto. 

Crops at risk

Among California counties, Ventura ranks eighth in total crop value. It ranks 10th nationally, according to the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

Ventura farmers grew about $1.8 billion dollars worth of crops in 2011. Strawberries raked in the most at $626 million. Raspberries, lemons, nursery stock and celery followed at more than $150 million each.

RELATED: Read more about the strawberry harvest

Crops with more sugar content are less likely to freeze, Dautch said. That would include strawberries right now, and his ripe oranges.

“They have a lot of sugar content. They can withstand the frost a lot better than the fruit we start harvesting in June,” he said.

Dautch is unusual. He runs Earthtrine Farms, an organic farm, and harvests citrus twice a year. Most farmers harvest their citrus once, starting in May or June, so their fruit has less sugar now. 

Local temperatures around the Southland often dip down close to freezing this time of year, especially in low lying valleys.

“But it’s been many years since temperatures have been this low,” said Seto of the National Weather Service. “And this is unusual because it’s so widespread across Southern California.

Cold, but no chill on optimism

“It’s a wait-and-see thing,” said Kerry Clasby, who describes herself as a professional forager. She buys food from Dautch and others for high-end restaurants, including Osteria Mozza on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. First Lady Michelle Obama has eaten there.

Clasby spoke by phone as she was inspecting crops on Dautch’s farm. She remains optimistic most crops will escape the devastating damage of 2007, when a freeze caused more than $100 million in losses.

“We may have slipped by,” she said.

Farmers are doing everything they can to keep their crops snug. Dautch has covered his lettuce and kale with a special cloth.

“That increases the temperature about three or four degrees. It creates a little bit of a greenhouse effect,” he said. “The field crops are not even growing right now. But they’re staying alive.” 

Dautch said he picked a couple of oranges early Sunday morning to see how they were doing.

To his relief, he found "they were fine. They were delicious as a matter of fact.”

Dautch is philosophical about the cold weather, which together with California’s hot temperatures make for good growing.

“As with people, the greatest flaw can also be the greatest virtue," he said. "The cold weather can also be what gives it the greatest flavor.”

As long as it doesn’t get too cold.

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