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California Town Faces Hard Times Due to Freeze

  • Sasha Khokha

This month's cold snap was devastating to California agriculture. Officials say the bitter temperatures cost the state's orange and lemon growers more than $800 million in crop losses, about $1 million more than they first estimated.

Now, growers and farm workers are facing the effects of those big financial losses. And so are small towns, like Lindsay, that rely on oranges as their main industry. Here, even the local bar is called The Orange, and the old movie theater The Grove. The town's annual spring festival features an Orange Blossom Queen and her court. And on cold nights, the town sounds like a helicopter landing pad, as farmers fire up their wind machines -- giant propellers that push warm air among the groves.

Lindsay is home to some 10,000 people, and half the population works picking, packing, or growing citrus.

Inside Virginia's Barbershop, as Connie Norris' young son gets a haircut, she chats with other customers about the major freeze that hit Lindsay in 1990. The frigid temperatures destroyed the citrus, and the local economy. Norris says this cold snap could do the same. "It affects all the different industries, the juice plant, the packinghouses, manufacturing plants. Even here in town, here, people won't have the extra money to get their hair cut." One of the other customers remembers that the community actually held a funeral for the town that year.

It had been a bad year. The main olive plant had just closed, and then the orange workers lost their jobs. Unemployment was 67 percent. And so, says Mayor Ed Murray, the idea of the funeral was to bury all that bad luck. "We had the funeral procession through town and went out to the park and buried a can of olives, a frozen orange." He says the ceremony was symbolic and cathartic. "People who had anything they wanted to throw into the gravesite could throw it in there, to get rid of the old, and start fresh anew."

Farmers say they learned some lessons from that 1990 freeze. Most of them have crop insurance now. But oranges are still the town's main industry, and workers at Lindsay's packinghouses are still vulnerable to a frost that could kill thousands of jobs.

Philip LoBue owns one of the biggest packinghouses in town. His oranges are shipped all over the United States and to Asia and Australia. Workers stand along an assembly line, packaging the last oranges picked before the freeze.
LoBue says he only managed to save about 25 percent of his crop because he couldn't find enough pickers before the cold set in. He blames that on the lack of a guestworker program. "Everybody was trying to pick a lot more than what they would have normally been picking. There just weren't any workers to pick, so it really accented our lack of an immigration policy."

LoBue does have plenty of packinghouse workers, but he says he'll be forced to lay them off very soon. One of them is 57-year old Maria de Jesus Castaneda. And she expects her husband, a truck driver who delivers oranges, to lose his job, too. Castaneda makes about $10,000 a year. She says her unemployment check didn't cover her expenses during the last big freeze… and she doesn't know where else she and her husband could find work. "Where else is anyone going to find work here?" she asks. "It's pure oranges, just packing. There are no other jobs here."

Lindsay Mayor Ed Murray says he's hoping to change that. He's not planning any funerals this time around. "Crying wolf, and poor little Lindsay, and woe is me, and Lindsay is going to go under -- you don't want that kind of stuff," he insists. "That happened back in the 1990-1991. It's changed a lot, our perspectives have changed."

Since the last big freeze, the city has managed to diversify a little bit, attracting a door company and some irrigation equipment factories. City leaders have also raised millions of dollars in grants to revitalize the downtown area.

Murray walks through what used to be one of the largest lemon packinghouses in town, a business that went under during the 1990 freeze. The city has bought the building and is turning it into a fitness center with five indoor soccer courts and a game arcade. Murray plans to lobby Washington for more federal money so he can hire displaced citrus workers to fix up the town. "Instead of putting it in food and housing and unemployment and stuff like that," he proposes, "let's put the people to work working for the city for six, eight, 10 months, until they get back picking fruit again or working in the orchards. Help your town and fix up your town!"

But in the meantime, Lindsay and surrounding communities in this part of California are under a state of emergency, and food banks say they're already starting to see longer lines.