view current print edition




Florida freeze hammers corn, lettuce and beans, but strawberries and tomatoes spared

by Christina DiMartino | January 28, 2009
Crop damage assessments caused by the freeze that blanketed Florida Jan. 21 are still coming in, but early reports indicate that corn, lettuce and beans, predominantly in the Lake Okeechobee region, suffered about a 95 percent loss.

"The losses were very significant," said Paul Allen, co-owner of R.C. Hatton Farms in Pahokee, FL. "It was, in my opinion, the worst freeze we've had since 1989. About 95 percent of both corn and green beans in the Lake Okeechobee area were destroyed."

The green bean crop harvest in the Lake Okeechobee area runs from November through May. Mr. Allen said that the freeze damage would cause a slowdown from now through about March 1. He added that prices have already begun to rise.

"We were absolutely devastated," said Mr. Allen. "Supplies will be light through about March 10, but we expect to be back to normal movement after that time."

Mr. Allen added that another cold front was predicted for the last weekend of January, but the forecast prediction was not as bad as the Jan. 21 freeze.

Adding that there is no crystal ball when it comes to what such a freeze will cause at the market level, Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland, FL, said that because Easter is a prime green bean season, a slowdown of movement with higher prices is likely. She added that reports on other crops have also reached the FFVA office.

"Growers I've spoken with in the Belle Glade area said that the Romaine lettuce crop was hit pretty hard, and they don't hold out much hope for a good recovery," she told The Produce News Wednesday, Jan. 28. "Reports are that tomatoes and strawberries, however, survived pretty much unscathed."

Reggie Brown, manager of the Orlando-based Florida Tomato Committee, confirmed that tomatoes fared relatively well.

"Given the temperatures the state sustained, there was surprisingly small damage to the tomato crop," said Mr. Brown. "There were some fields in colder locations that reported some damage, but the overall consensus is that the Florida tomato industry is sighing a great sigh of relief over the minimal amount of damage. We are fortunate to have dodged the major bullet. There is another cold snap forecast for the last weekend of the month, but we don't expect it to be a problem because it's nowhere near as severe as the one on January 21."

Mr. Brown added that tomato prices have not rebounded this season, and remain at $7-$8 a box. He explained that Mexican shipments are jammed at the border at reference price, but many of those tomatoes are now on their way back home in Mexico.

"The have been coming into the country at reference price, and the stackup at the border is causing ripening," said Mr. Brown. "Any tomato beyond a color level of 4 or 5 is red tagged and sent back to the shipper. This is generally a sign of a bad situation, but historically it means that things will improve for Florida shippers in the coming future."

Regarding the Jan. 21 freeze, Ms. Lochridge said that temperatures in some areas dropped to the mid- to low 20s for a long stretch, and it's that stretch that typically spells trouble.

"The citrus industry is reporting some scattered pockets of damage," said Ms. Lochridge. "And we've heard some reports of damaged squash, but we don't have precise loss figures yet. With citrus, a little less fruit may not be a bad thing because it can help to reduce the juice stock overages."

Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Florida Citrus Mutual in Lakeland, FL, said that his organization had reports of temperatures in the low 20s as far south as LaBelle, but irrigation can often raise temperatures by several degrees.

"Growers are reporting that they will have damage; however, we will not be able to determine the extent for a few more days as growers continue to inspect their groves and send in reports," Mr. Meadows told The Produce News Jan. 27. "The good news is we still have a high-quality product to sell, especially our fresh fruit, and any loss of juice oranges will help reduce our current excessive inventory. No doubt we will pull through this event."

Temperatures were low enough to cause damage to citrus trees, but growers won't know the extent until they see how the trees rebound over the next few weeks.

Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Association in Dover, FL, said that there were no reports of damage of any kind to the strawberry industry in the state.

"We had a board meeting on January 27, and growers said their aggressive harvesting when the freeze warning was issued and heavy watering spared them of any damage," said Mr. Campbell. "The berries are beautiful because growers were Johnny-on-the-spot with their protection processes."

Ms. Lochridge added that reports had been received by FFVA from growers that the bell pepper crop was also spared major damage.