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Casey Christie / The Californian

Dick Minetti, owner of Minetti's Anxious Acres, is concerned about the cold front moving south from Oregon that can threaten his citrus crop in Bakersfield.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Kern County citrus grower Dick Minetti is concerned in this Dec. 3 photo about the cold front moving into Kern County and will take precautions for the fruit that is still on the trees on his 30-acre plot.

At 77 years old, east Bakersfield citrus grower Dick Minetti needs his sleep. But tell that to Mother Nature.

Temperatures are expected to drop below freezing Wednesday night, potentially threatening the mandarins, lemons and other fruit hanging in his 30-acre orchard off Park Drive near Edison.

With a flashlight on his bedstand, Minetti plans to check the indoor-outdoor thermometer in his bedroom periodically through the night. If the mercury slips below 29 degrees for more than a couple of hours, he plans to irrigate his trees with warm water.

The resulting steam just might be enough to protect his crop.

"Usually it'll raise it 1 degree, maybe 1 1/2 degrees, and sometimes that's enough," he said.

Citrus freezes are a fairly regular occurrence in the Central Valley, and people in the business say the one predicted to extend intermittently through Friday or Saturday morning probably won't be anywhere near as damaging as the freezing weather that claimed roughly half of Kern's citrus crop in January 2007, causing an estimated $179 million in damages.

Even so, this episode is considered abnormal because of its arrival so early in the season, when a relatively large amount of sensitive fruit remains to be harvested.

The industry isn't taking any chances.

"All our growers are prepared for it," said Paul Story, director of grower services for the 1,500-member California Citrus Mutual trade group.

He said citrus growers up and down the Central Valley plan to irrigate and turn on wind machines in an effort to circulate warmer air and possibly raise temperatures by as many as 5 degrees to ward off damage.

The stakes are high. Citrus is Kern County's fourth most valuable crop, accounting for $620 million in sales last year -- 15 percent more than in 2011.

Oranges are less of a concern than other kinds of crops because of their high sugar content and thick, insulating peels. More worrisome is the potential damage to lemons, limes and mandarins -- the kid-size fruit of Cuties and Halos fame.

What happens is, the tiny juice sacks in citrus fruit can burst if they get cold enough. Over time, that dries the fruit and renders them worthless. The damage may not be apparent for weeks, even months.

There's a certain irony at play. In a phenomenon similar to sleep, trees including citrus require a certain amount of cold weather every year to produce fruit of consistently high quality.

"It's a give and take," said Benjamin McFarland, executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau. "Part of the beauty, part of the reason why we have such growth is because of the deep freezes."

Cold weather also kills agricultural pests, County Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo noted.

"Cold weather's part of the whole business of growing citrus. Citrus trees actually thrive in cold weather," he said.

His office monitors conditions in the fields and, if a freeze occurs, inspectors check for damage, tagging any compromised loads. If losses are widespread, he may apply for permission to declare an economic disaster, which can make local growers eligible for low-interest federal loans.

The county's largest citrus producer, Delano-based Paramount Citrus, plans to have staff on-call at all hours through Saturday morning, ready to turn on irrigation and wind machines. In places where wind machines are unavailable, the company intends to call in helicopters whose rotors blow warmer air to the ground.

"Obviously we're concerned," Vice President of Farming Doug Carman said Tuesday.

Although not unprecedented, this week's low temperatures come at a bad time.

"We still have 80, 85 percent of our fruit to harvest, and we normally don't get into these types of events until the middle of December sometime," Carman said.

He declined to predict whether damage will occur anywhere in the 30,000 acres his company owns in California, saying, "we'll know more Saturday."

On Tuesday, the National Weather Service forecast lows of 30 degrees in Bakersfield and, in Kern's outlying areas, temperatures as low as 25 degrees shortly before sunrise Thursday. A meteorologist at the service's Hanford office, Jim Bagnall, said the following night could be equally chilly.

Minetti, the east Bakersfield grower who partners with his daughter, Sherri, was hoping for some protection from the "banana belt" topography that put his property on a south-facing slope.

But he realizes that any freeze is largely out of his hands.

"How damaging it is depends on Mother Nature, really," he said.