Florida growers are preparing for what Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Association in Dover, FL, referred to as "a little burst of Yankee air" for Wednesday and Thursday nights, Feb. 4 and 5.
On Wednesday, the weather forecast called for a low of 21 degrees on both nights. Thermostats are expected to reach the lowest readings between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. on both mornings, meaning it's the most critical time for producers.
"Strawberry growers here will do the same thing they did when the last front came through two weeks ago [mid-January]: stay up all night, watch temperature readings every 10 to 15 minutes and turn on their irrigation systems when conditions dictate," Mr. Campbell told The Produce News. "It's typically the farm owners who sit in their pickup trucks in their fields throughout the night. Being able to act fast and defensively is the best weapon they have."
Mr. Campbell said that turning on irrigation systems as a means of protection is all handwork. Farm owners usually have a few employees on hand or on call to help if temperatures drop to that "time to turn the water on" second.
"One person cannot oversee every sector of a farm because it's all manual work," he said. "If an irrigation systems malfunctions -- a sprinkler head breaks, for example -- it has to be repaired immediately. There are a lot of sleepless nights when a cold blast passes through Florida."
There is one humanly beneficial perk to nights like these, however. Growers usually pass at least some of the time conversing with other growers by mobile phone, keeping each other informed of the conditions on each other's farms. Typical questions include what is your temperature reading and have you turned on your sprinklers yet.
"It's a necessity for growers to communicate with their competitors," said Mr. Campbell. "These are times when everyone has to watch every other person's back in order to fare as well as possible through the freeze. No one wants to see anyone else get wiped out by a freeze."
Charles H. Bronson, commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, issued a press release Feb. 3 alerting the state's agricultural producers that more freezing weather is expected this week that could affect crops as far south as the Lake Okeechobee area.
Florida is at the peak of harvest season for many fruits and vegetables, the release stated. Crops at risk include citrus, strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, snap beans, celery, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, endive/escarole, peppers, radishes and squash.
Commissioner Bronson reminded agricultural producers that an executive order remains in effect through Feb. 11 that directs the Florida Department of Transportation to relax the weight, height, length and width restrictions for commercial vehicles transporting vulnerable crops to processing sites. Following the commissioner's request, Gov. Charlie Crist extended the original executive order that was issued at the time of the mid-January cold front.
"Our state's growers are continuing the speedy harvest of their products to help prevent or reduce crop losses," Commissioner Bronson said in the release. "Florida's growers produce nearly all of our nation's domestically produced fresh fruits and vegetables during the winter months. Consumers all across the United States count on Florida's farmers to provide them with fresh produce in the dead of winter."
Mr. Campbell added that the 2008-09 growing season in Florida has been uncommon in the high number of cold fronts that have passed through.
"It's been a harsh winter," he said. "That big trough that comes down from Canada into the middle of the U.S. sinks right down into the Southeast. In November, we had fronts three weeks in a row. December was about normal, and then we got hit again in mid-January. This one coming tonight and tomorrow may be the worst one yet."
Strawberry growers, Mr. Campbell added, can only pick fruit that is mature and saleable. "Strawberries don't continue to ripen after picked," he said. "If it's not ripe, it shouldn't be in the box."
He continued, "After the frost issue has passed and the fields dry out, growers can start to pick again. If it doesn't get too cold, or for too long, if the humidity level stays where we want it and all the irrigation works, this shouldn't hurt too much. Only minimal damage has been reported so far this season. We're hoping for the same situation this time."
Mr. Campbell issued a request to the northern part of the country, saying, "We would like to ask the North to do us a big favor: shut your back door and keep the cold up North where it belongs."