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Growers brace for second cold front

by Chip Carter | January 06, 2010
PLANT CITY, FL -- The worst freeze in a century gripped Florida for most of the first week of 2010 as an arctic front that blew in Jan. 2 persisted and was expected to be reinforced over the weekend of Jan. 9-11 by another icy blast that threatened winter crops.

As The Produce News went to press Jan. 7, most Florida farmers had seen little damage to winter crops. A reprieve from five consecutive nights of sub- freezing temperatures as far south as Lake Okeechobee on the eastern coast and Naples on the western coast was forecast for Jan. 7-8 before a second, even colder front was projected to blow in Jan. 9 and last through Jan. 11.

Some citrus growers recorded grove temperatures as low as 21 degrees Jan. 2-6, with temperatures in the mid- to upper-20s common across the state. According to the National Weather Service, near-record lows were recorded in Tampa and Miami, and new low temperatures were reached in Orlando and in two of Florida's larger citrus-producing counties, Polk and Highlands, where thermometers dipped to 28 and 18 degrees respectively.

The second front was expected to generate record-shattering low temperatures statewide Jan 9-11, though it was hoped the front would not be powerful enough to penetrate as far south as the first blast.

As Florida growers scrambled midweek to harvest fruit and vegetables in the fields ahead of the second forecast front, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Jan. 6 that relaxed weight, load and dimension restrictions on vehicles transporting Florida produce.

"It's important to the state's economy that we harvest as much of this crop as possible," state Department of Agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy told The Produce News Jan. 6. "So far, strawberries are faring OK. There is no significant damage in terms of citrus. Florida Citrus Mutual said they are not expecting anything catastrophic - some fruit and leaf drop and, in low-lying areas, some slushy fruit. Bottom line: From what we're hearing this hasn't been catastrophic. But this isn't over."

During the cold snap, Florida Citrus Mutual field representatives headed out to groves each morning to assess damage from the previous night. Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for Mutual, told The Produce News Jan. 6, "It's been a hectic three days. We had some isolated damage, but overall we came through pretty well. This hasn't been catastrophic."

"Preliminary reports indicate there may be isolated areas that have minor fruit damage; however temperatures do not appear to have dipped low enough for a long enough duration to create substantial problems," Mutual's chief executive officer, Michael Sparks, said in a statement sent to members and obtained by The Produce News Jan. 6. "Parts of the industry received some minimal damage in the colder locations, especially south of the [central peninsular] ridge. There were isolated areas with temperatures reported by growers as low as 22-23 degrees. Most growers that Mutual has spoken with expect isolated fruit drop as well as minor leaf damage. There have been some reports of ice cut in some fruit as well. Reports from the Indian River region indicate that the grapefruit crop came through with no damage, while there was very minimal scattered damage on the orange crop. All of these reports are preliminary."

At mid-week, Florida growers were still taking stock of losses, but they were cautiously optimistic that the extended freeze would be weathered. Rumors ran rampant -- one citrus industry executive told The Produce News that anecdotal reports placed damage to the crop as high as 25 percent, while another Florida produce veteran proclaimed that Palmetto and Ruskin tomatoes and winter vegetables were "done."

AccuWeather Inc. meteorologists estimated Jan. 6 that Florida had lost just 1 percent of its citrus crop; they projected that the Jan. 9-11 front could claim as much as another 5 percent.

Industry veteran Sal Toscano of Plant City berry producer SunnyRidge Farm told The Produce News Jan. 4, "I've never been through something like this where it's [several] consecutive days of sub-freezing temperatures. 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 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 temperatures for this long, and there's another front coming for the weekend. It's day to day."

J.R. Pierce of Plant City berry grower Astin Farms told The Produce News Jan. 6 that the company's fields recorded temperatures as low as 25 degrees during the first few days of the cold snap.

"We're doing OK," Mr. Pierce said. "There's a little bit of a slowdown in production of course - the fields are too wet to pick - but no real damage. We are a little concerned about this weekend though."

Across the state, farmers covered exposed plant sets with layers of insulating plastic. Strawberry fields were sprayed with water to encase berries in a protective layer of ice, leaving standing water and muck that made harvesting difficult. Citrus groves were enshrouded in a fog produced by misters spraying 68-degree water in an effort to cloak trees in a protective cloud. But even the best protective measures might be in vain if the second cold front turns out to be as severe as forecast. Accompanying low humidity might exacerbate the danger, since there would be little moisture to help protect plants.

"We can't exactly cover 2,000 acres of fields in plastic," Bob Spencer, head of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, told The Produce News Jan. 6. "We came through last night pretty good. There is some damage. We've had cold snaps before, but this is kind of scary. All we can do is run water down the rows and hope for the best."

Chuck Weisinger of Fort Myers-based Weis-Buy Farms said Jan. 4, "Anything that's open to the air is going to be a problem. 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."

Tomatoes and citrus freeze at 28 degrees, strawberries can bear 26 degrees; more than four hours of unprotected exposure at those temperatures results in major damage. Also at risk were northern Florida broccoli and cabbage, as well as 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 Jan. 4. "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 initially bet 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. But futures climbed to a two-year high Jan. 6 as the freeze continued, spiking at $1.4965 -- the highest price since Jan. 2, 2008.

The cold snap was 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 farther south in the aftermath.