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Losses mounting as Florida farmers try to hold on through one more night of freezing weather

by Chip Carter | January 10, 2010
Florida farmers have weathered the worst of nine consecutive sub-freezing nights, but losses are starting to pile up with one more record-shattering forecast for Jan. 11-12 to get through before temperatures are projected to finally climb above freezing for the rest of the week.

It will be weeks before growers have an accurate picture of the damage from an unprecedented cold snap that has brought record lows to most of the state. Record freezing temperatures for the date were recorded Jan. 11 in Tallahassee (14), Brooksville (15), Gainesville (17), Tampa (25), Sarasota (28) and Fort Myers (31). St. Petersburg and West Palm Beach set record lows of 33, while Miami dipped to a record 36; accompanying dry air created problems even for growers not facing freezing temperatures.

"The weekend was pretty rough," Florida Department of Agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy told The Produce News Jan. 11. "It's clear now that the record low temperatures coupled with the sheer duration of this will result in substantial crop damage. It will be several days before it can be sorted out and analyzed and documented, but there's going to be damage. The strawberries have taken so darn much water [that] the fields will be mushy [and] there'll be some dropoff for them. Citrus, particularly in the northernmost areas of the citrus belt, got hit pretty hard I think; we're hearing anecdotally there's some ice and slush in fruit. Down in Indian River they've been spared, the southwest will probably be OK, in central Florida there will be areas that were pretty darn hard hit -- there may be some damage to young citrus trees, a more serious problem than simply losing fruit. Vegetables around Lake Okeechobee had many, many nights of freezing -- again, not good. Pretty much across the board most agricultural sectors will be impacted. What percentage they will lose we can't say, but I don't think anyone is going to escape unscathed."

Tomatoes are virtually wiped out, as are winter vegetables like corn, beans and peppers. Farmers will simply have to swallow the losses, collect what they can on insurance policies and start over, meaning a later crop and market- window losses.

Some citrus growers have recorded losses as high as 30 percent while others have been barely nicked. Groves along the central peninsular ridge and in the northern half of the state have seen more damage. At this point, growers there are more concerned about the health of the trees than salvaging the fruit they now bear.

The Florida strawberry crop has come through in remarkably good shape, though growers will feel the impact of missing two weeks of peak-season production. What damage has come to the strawberry crop has been due to technological failures, like broken pumps, malfunctioning sprinkler heads or, in some cases, wells run dry after days of unprecedented use.

Bob Spencer, head of Palmetto, FL-based West Coast Tomato, told The Produce News Jan. 11, "The weekend was pretty hard -- any of the stuff we were going to be harvesting for the next month to month-and-a-half was hit pretty hard. Some of the younger stuff came through OK, but anything we were planning to harvest in the next month to 45 days is probably for the most part toast. There was a hard freeze [as far south as] Immokalee. We will just pick up with our planting schedule -- we were scheduled to plant last week and this but we can't -- but we'll just keep moving on and thank God for crop insurance."

Lisa Lochridge, spokeperson for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland, told The Produce News, "In terms of losses, it sounds like that southwest area where the tomatoes and peppers are has probably been the hardest hit so far in terms of damage. Last night [Jan. 10-11] was the proverbial knockout blow after going 10 long, hard rounds. We made it through all of last week, but last night was just too much. It's extraordinary, the sustained cold that we've seen with back-to-back sub-freezing temperatures -- you just can't get through that much cold."

Citrus industry losses to-date have been substantial but not catastrophic, according to Florida Citrus Mutual.

"The reports we are getting tell us there is frozen fruit as well as twig and leaf damage out there now; it may be days or weeks until we figure out whether there is long-term tree damage," Michael W. Sparks, Mutual chief executive officer, said in a Jan. 11 press release. "All of the information is anecdotal at this point and varies literally from grove to grove, so we won't be able to come out with a definitive answer until the U.S. Department of Agriculture accounts for the cold snap in the monthly crop forecast, probably in February. Although production may be affected by this recent string of cold temperatures, we still have ample inventories of orange juice and fully expect to continue to produce the quality crop our state is known for. Florida growers are a resilient bunch, and I know we will come through this. This is not our first time to the rodeo, and it won't be our last."

Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, said the state's berry crop has apparently held up quite well.

"Most everything I'm seeing looks remarkably good," Mr. Campbell told The Produce News Jan. 11. "I don't know how these darn plants are taking all this, but right now they are. We're obviously going to have some damage in some isolated places due mainly to equipment failures. But in general it looks like the majority of the crop is taking this very well. We're dancing on the edge of it. There have been a lot of sleepless hours. I don't think anybody realizes what these growers go through. But we've got our fingers crossed, and the prayers are working. If there's a few leaves burned here or there, we'll see that in the next week or so, but it's remarkably little considering the event we've been through."