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On Tuesday, Jan. 5, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson requested that Gov. Charlie Crist declare a state of emergency and issue an executive order directing the Florida Department of Transportation to relax the weight, height, length and width restrictions for commercial vehicles transporting vulnerable crops to processing sites. The order was requested in response to the current cold front hovering over the state.

Gov. Crist responded by signing an executive order which took effect Jan. 5 and was announced by the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services about 8:30 p.m. the same day. The order will remain in effect for 14 days.

"Transporting the vulnerable crops to processing sites without delay is necessary to save them from destruction, and the relaxation of the restrictions on the weight, height, length and width for commercial vehicles transporting these crops is necessary to protect the agricultural interests of the state," Gov. Crist said in the executive order.

On Wednesday morning, Jan. 6, Terence McElroy, press secretary for the department, told The Produce News that temperatures in the early morning fell as low as the high 20s in areas as far south as Lake Okeechobee.

"Because growers and organization representatives don't get into the fields until early in the morning, damage reports won't come in until later, and in some cases they won't know how bad the damage is for a longer period of time," said Mr. McElroy. "We have heard some antidotal information about icing on some citrus, but we really don't have facts at this time."

Mr. McElroy said that Commissioner Bronson felt it appropriate to get emergency assistance from the governor in order to enable growers to get as much product as possible moved out of harm's way.

"The Florida Department of Transportation has regulations that limit the height, weight and length of trucks on the roads," said Mr. McElroy. "This executive order basically increases those dimensions for a temporary period of time so growers can move what crops they can."

Mr. McElroy added that a major crop loss in Florida would have huge and far- reaching effects.

"Besides losses to agriculture producers, a substantial loss of Florida's crops would have grave economic effects," he said. "During December, January and February, Florida produces about 75 percent of the domestically produced food. Major crop losses would result in shortages, which would cause prices to increase. It would be an economic hardship on everyone, from growers to consumers."

Growers are using every measure possible to protect their crops during this cold spell. Mr. McElroy said that weather predictions indicated that temperatures would rise on Thursday, Jan. 7, and Friday, Jan. 8, but that another cold blast was expected to follow that would last a couple of days.