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A drop of water begins to fall from melting ice covering oranges on a tree near Modesto, Calif., on Tuesday. Three nights of freezing temperatures have cost California up to three-quarters of its billion-dollar citrus crop. ((Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press))

Shoppers will soon be feeling the sting of higher prices from a wave of icy weather that has hit California farms, damaging nearly three-quarters of the citrus crop.

Nearly every winter crop in California, from avocados to fresh-cut flowers, has suffered severely, growers have reported. Price hikes still won't be enough to offset the damage, as farmers cope with nearly $1 billion US in losses following four consecutive nights of below-freezing temperatures.

On Tuesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the federal government for disaster aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Small Business Administration for growers and other affected businesses.

"This is not just about the crop this year. It could also have a devastating effect next year," Schwarzenegger said after touring a devastated orange grove in Fresno. "My administration will make sure that we do everything we can to help the farmers and workers get through this."

California largest citrus grower in U.S.

The state's citrus industry stands to take the biggest economic hit of all crops. California is the largest producer of fresh citrus in the U.S., growing about 86 per cent of lemons and 21 per cent of oranges sold in the country, according to the California Farm Bureau.

Canada imported oranges worth about $1.1 million from California in 2005, according to Industry Canada.

Jesse McCue, a produce manager at Edmonton's Planet Organic, said his store imports about 90 per cent of its winter produce from California. He's encouraging shoppers to buy seasonal items like root vegetables because of the shortage.

"This is kind of becoming the future. We're seeing a lot of extreme weather changes," he said. "At the moment right now, we're buying up what we can and trying to ration what perishable stock we have."

A spokesman for the grocery chain Sobeys said the company will probably import fruits from other countries to supplement the limited supply from California.

Growers say more than 70 per cent of the season's oranges, lemons and tangerines were still on the trees as nighttime temperatures in California's Central Valley dropped Friday evening.

"Limited amounts were harvested before the freeze, so it's not like the markets are going to dry up suddenly," said Claire Smith, a spokeswoman for Sunkist Growers Inc., a Los Angeles-based co-operative owned by 6,000 growers in California and Arizona.

Low supply may boost prices

Still, the diminished supply is bound to drive up prices, Smith said. Sunkist may import oranges and other fruit from South Africa and other countries.

"We may adjust the prices as we discover the full extent of the damage next week, but for now, if you bought an orange at the supermarket for 50 cents, expect to pay a dollar to $1.49 for it," said Todd Steel, owner of Royal Vista Marketing, which sells California citrus to markets throughout the U.S.

Lee Cole, chief of Santa Paula-based Calavo Growers Inc., which sells 35 to 40 per cent of the state's $380-million avocado crop, said the freeze may have claimed up to 40 per cent of Calavo's crop in Ventura County, with damage along the less-frigid coast between San Luis Obispo and Escondido hovering between 25 and 35 per cent.

Strawberries growing along the coastal regions of southern California were mostly ruined, according to the California Strawberry Commission. The freeze also destroyed flowers that would produce the next berry crop on each plant.

Throughout the cold snap, growers have tried to save their crops by pumping fields with heated irrigation water, and running wind machines to circulate warmer air and keep it from rising off the trees.