San Diego's loss may be Mexico's gain when it comes to peddling avocados this year. And new market opportunities for imported flowers and soft plants may also be opening as county growers recover from the recent freeze.

While early reports projected damage exceeding $400 million, Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, says the final tally should be closer to $50 million to $75 million.

He said the county's entire agricultural output is valued at $1.5 billion each year.

"It's not a huge part of what we do, but what shouldn't go unsaid is you're the farmer who lost 100 percent, it's not much condolence to say San Diego didn't do as bad as the rest of the state," Larson said, referring to reports that statewide agricultural damage could exceed $1 billion.

The deep freeze began Jan. 11, and affected everything from citrus and avocados to flowers and strawberries.

Avocados were hardest hit, followed by cut flowers and soft plants sold for spring planting, Larson said.

Assessing Damage

Charley Wolk, a Fallbrook avocado grower and chairman of the Hass Avocado Board, a federal industry group, said he has spent the past few weeks assessing damage.

"We have places where we have more damage showing as we get further away from the event," said Wolk, who compares the freeze to a tornado because it impacted sporadically. The cold temperatures spelled disaster for one grower but spared his neighbor.

The damage will be long-standing for those that were hit.

"This cold is going to damage us three years out," Wolk said. He noted it's likely some avocado growers will not have a marketable crop until the 2009 season, given the impact on their groves.

Deciphering areas hardest hit is also difficult, said Renee Hilton, assistant director of the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures.

"It's very difficult to tell and the reason why is just the general topography of the region," Hilton said, referring to San Diego County's diverse landscape of canyons and mesas.

Unfortunate Timing

Meanwhile, federal regulators are lifting a ban on Mexican avocados in California.

Starting nine years ago, Mexican avocado growers entered the U.S. market, beginning in the East and moving west.

Larson said the idea was to let Mexico prove it could import avocados without also bringing in harmful pests.

"Fortuitous for them, unfortunate for us," Larson said.

But Wolk isn't too concerned.

"The market potential out there is so great, we don't have to be stealing each other's customers," Wolk said, noting that the ban lift will make it possible for San Diego to enjoy avocados year-round.

Larson said freezes are nothing new for the region but what was unusual about this month's low temperatures was that they remained for so long.

He added that it's common during the winter months to see an hour or two of below freezing temperatures just before sunrise. But this month, freezing conditions started a couple of hours before midnight and held steady through the night.

"Our problem was not so much how cold it got but how long it stayed cold," Larson said.