19 Jan

Olive crop hard hit by freeze

By Ben Brown,

Mendocino County’s burgeoning olive industry will be the hardest hit by last weekend’s cold snap, said Mendocino County Agricultural Commissioner Dave Bengston.

“It’s been a long time since we had temperatures this low,” Bengston said.

Unlike grapes and pears, which are dormant this time of year, olive trees are evergreen and more likely to be hurt by low temperatures. Bengston said the thinner branches of olive trees, what are referred to as “small wood,” can be hurt or killed when temperatures fall below 20 degrees.

Starting Jan. 11, a cold front from Canada and Alaska caused temperatures in Mendocino County to drop well below freezing at night, often dropping as low as the teens.

“Large wood” or thicker branches may also have been damaged because they can be hurt when temperatures drop below 15 degrees.

Bengston said the last time Mendocino County experienced a freeze this cold was 1990 when there was little in the way of an olive crop in the county.

In addition, Bengston said many olive growers did not have frost protection for their trees and rely on drip irrigation, which does little to protect them from the cold.

“They couldn’t do anything to protect themselves if they wanted to,” Bengston said.

The freeze is not likely to have killed trees outright, but Bengston said similar freezes in other areas have affected the size of the olive crop, and it can take up to five years for an olive tree to return to full production.

“It didn’t kill the trees, but it affects their output,” he said.

Bengston said the full effects of the freeze on the olive crop will not be known until after the harvest in November. He said he plans to take a survey of olive growers in the county next year to determine the full effect of the freeze on the crop.

In the meantime, Bengston said olive growers should avoid pruning back branches that appear dead.

“You don’t know where they’re going to come back,” he said.

Another industry that may have sustained damage during the cold snap is the nurseries. The bulk of these, roughly 70 percent, are along the coast, which does not usually experience sub-freezing temperatures.

Greenhouses may have been able to ride out some of the damage, but plants growing outside that can’t be moved, especially flowers, may have been killed, Bengston said.

“I’ve already heard this is going to affect Valentine’s Day,” he said.

In Southern California, the problem is far worse. Citrus farmers are thought to have lost up to 70 percent of their crop, a loss totaling as much as $1 billion. Avocado farmers have also been hit hard by the cold.

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