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Winter blast grips Florida; snap could be coldest in a century

by Chip Carter | January 03, 2010
DAYTONA SHORES, FL -- The most significant freeze in a century had Florida farmers worried at midday Monday, Jan. 4, about the fate of the winter crops. An icy artic mass blew into the state over the weekend of Jan. 2-3, and promised to hover throughout the week, with an even more threatening blow expected this weekend (Jan. 9-10).

"I've never been through something like this where it's [several] consecutive days of sub-freezing temperatures," industry veteran Sal Toscano of Plant City, FL, berry producer Sunny Ridge Farms told The Produce News Jan. 4. "I'll tell you the same thing I'm telling my bosses: I don't really know what to expect, I don't know what's going to happen. No one does. I know at best there's going to be a lot of water [sprayed on plants in an attempt to hold temperatures at 32 degrees]. This thing looks like it's going to last to another four or five days. Anything I tell you can be wrong in another 24 hours. How it's going to affect us long term I'm not sure. I'm not sure I can remember a period where they were calling for sub-freezing temps for this long, and there's another front coming for the weekend. It's day to day."

Florida strawberry and citrus producers weathered the first two days of the blast with little damage recorded. Strawberry fields were sprayed with water to encase berries in a protective layer of ice. Meanwhile, citrus groves across the state were enshrouded in a fog produced by misters spraying 68-degree water in an effort to cloak the trees in a protective cloud.

But even the best protective measures could prove in vain if Florida experiences sustained, sub-freezing temperatures for several nights in a row.

"Anything that's open to the air is going to be a problem," said Chuck Weisinger of Fort Myers, FL, produce broker Weis-Buy Farms. "Stuff north of the Caloosahatchee River (which runs parallel from the western edge of Lake Okeechobee to Fort Myers) could be in trouble. It depends on how much cold weather we get for how long and whether the wind continues and whether we continue to get a cloud cover. I just don't see any relief with this."

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, freezing temperatures were recorded as far south as Lake Okeechobee and Naples Saturday and Sunday nights, Jan. 2 and Jan. 3. Even colder weather was forecast for the remainder of the week, with major citrus-growing areas facing projected temperatures as low as 24 degrees and a potential hard freeze -- three or more hours at temperatures below 32 -- as far south as Lake Okeechobee.

Strawberries and citrus both freeze at 28 degrees; more than four hours of unprotected exposure at that temperature results in major damage. Also at risk are northern Florida broccoli and cabbage, as well as tomatoes, corn and other vegetables in the southern half of the state.

"Everybody's got their pumps ready and working and getting ready to spray, checking the Rainbirds," Mr. Toscano said. "We'll have ice, let it melt, let the fields dry, go in and see what we can [pick] day by day. I wouldn't even attempt to predict what it's going to do before the [coming] weekend."

Wall Street was betting that at least the Florida citrus crop would escape the freeze in good shape. On Dec. 31, orange juice futures for March delivery fell 5.7 percent in anticipation that the impending cold snap would not be significant enough to disrupt production.

The cold snap portends the longest period of freezing weather in Florida in more than a century. Freezes in 1894-95 were so severe that seven of eight banks serving central Florida's citrus corridor collapsed, and the state's citrus industry relocated further south in the aftermath.