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Florida farmers counting losses and blessings as state thaws after record cold snap

by Chip Carter | January 12, 2010
TAMPA, FL -- Temperatures in Florida approached 60 degrees Jan. 12 for the first time since New Year's Day as the state began to thaw from a record- shattering cold snap that decimated tomato and vegetable crops. Ten consecutive nights of sub-freezing temperatures also hurt the citrus crop -- though the damage may not show up for weeks -- and dented the strawberry crop.

Florida farmers were staggered by the relentless cold. Record low temperatures were recorded across the state Jan. 2-12, and records for duration of cold weather were bested by several days. In Tampa, where the average high in January is above 70, temperatures did not reach 60 degrees at any point Jan. 2-12 and were not projected to do so until Jan. 14; the previous longest such stretch was seven days in 1956.

Freeze warnings were still in effect for many central and northern Florida counties for Jan. 12-13, but temperatures were not expected to drop low enough to do further damage to crops.

Temperatures were expected to warm up slowly -- good news for farmers who feared that a quick return to typical Florida temperatures might further shock damaged crops. Mid-week highs in the mid-50s were predicted, warming up to the mid-60s by week's end (Jan. 15). Temperatures in the low 70s were forecast for the weekend of Jan. 16-17, with accompanying rain.

Two arctic fronts that blasted the state Jan. 2 and Jan. 9 were not only frigid but also arid. High winds compounded the problem, and farmers were forced to continually water crops even in areas without freezing temperatures to prevent dehydration. Some crops actually benefited from the lack of moisture: Lettuce and leafy greens that managed to survive the cold would have been more susceptible to rot as temperatures rose had humidity levels been high.

Farmers across the state began the new year by covering exposed plant sets with layers of insulating plastic where feasible. As temperatures plunged, strawberry fields were sprayed with water 12-14 hours each night 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.

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

The freeze caused damage to every sector of Florida agriculture. Even the $45-million-a-year tropical fish industry was devastated. Floral and nursery stocks took a beating. Tomatoes, corn, beans and peppers were virtually wiped out. Estimates of citrus industry losses run from 5 to 30 percent; the actual picture will not become clear for weeks as worried growers watch groves for signs of tree damage.

Only strawberries escaped in good shape, with minimal damage mostly attributable to technical problems like broken pumps, malfunctioning sprinkler heads or, in some cases, wells run dry after days of unprecedented use. The industry lost two peak-season weeks of production due to fields flooded from constant watering. Anecdotal reports placed a premium on Florida strawberries, with some claiming a price increase as much as $2 per one-pound clamshell at retail. Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, told The Produce News Jan. 11 that whatever berries were available were garnering premium prices. Meanwhile, as of Jan. 12, strawberries at Tampa supermarkets were holding steady at $2.49 per one- pound clamshell -- the same price as Christmas week -- as grocers and growers honored ad deals made prior to the freeze.

Oranges had a wild two-week ride on Wall Street. Juice futures plummeted Dec. 31 as markets bet that the freeze would not be as severe as predicted. By Jan. 9, analysts had changed their tune, and futures rose to a two-year high. Anticipating continued volatility, the U.S. InterContinental Exchange temporarily lifted restrictions that limit price movement more than 10 cents a day in either direction. Futures dropped almost 20 cents Jan. 11, a sign that investors believed Florida citrus dodged a bullet.

Bob Spencer, head of Palmetto, FL-based West Coast Tomato, told The Produce News Jan. 11 that his crop and that of other growers in the area was "probably for the most part toast," adding, "Any of the stuff we were going to be harvesting for the next month to month-and-a-half was hit pretty hard. 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. The good news is, the younger stuff we'd planted for the spring is OK. So we'll have about 30-50 days of very little product at all, then we'll get back to normal."

Referring to a market window now open for Mexican and hothouse tomatoes, Mr. Spencer quipped, "I told my customers that I understand from television commercials that the quickest way to learn Spanish is Rosetta Stone."

It will be weeks before growers have an accurate picture of the damage from the unprecedented cold snap. 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. There have been other lethal freezes to hit portions of Florida in the past 30 years, but this was the worst stretch of weather statewide since 1894-95, when conditions 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. Twice in the 1970s, the citrus industry experienced catastrophic freezes, and in Christmas 1985 a sudden hard freeze killed trees and ruined groves in what is generally considered the industry's nadir. Four years later, another holiday freeze decimated the Florida tomato industry.

"In the mid-'80s, we had almost a whole region of citrus ruined; at Christmas of '85, a whole region just had dead citrus trees," Florida Department of Agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy told The Produce News Jan. 11. "So in that sense, I don't think the citrus industry will regard this as the worst-ever scenario. I don't think the citrus industry is going to lose the volume of trees they lost then. On the other hand, this [freeze] did go much deeper into the state and damaged various other sectors. I think you have to go back to the mid- to late-'70s in order to find an arctic system of this duration, and I think that's what really distinguishes this. Every year we get a night or two of cold weather, and then it warms up. A night or two, not two weeks. Something like this stresses the plants and the crop; they've had no opportunity to warm up and recover. 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."

Some citrus growers recorded losses as high as 30 percent, while others were barely nicked. Groves along the central peninsular ridge and in the northern half of the state saw more damage. Growers there were more concerned about the health of the trees than salvaging fruit. Industrywide, losses are believed to have been substantial but not catastrophic, Florida Citrus Mutual spokesman Andrew Meadows told The Produce News.

"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's 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." Lisa Lochridge, spokesperson for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland, told The Produce News Jan. 11 that the second arctic front that blasted the state Jan. 9 "was the proverbial knockout blow after going 10 long, hard rounds. We made it through all of last week but [Jan. 9-11] 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."

Ms. Lochridge said that there may be other ramifications from the freeze that will not become apparent until later in the season. Strawberries, in particular, may "struggle with diseases on down the line due to the [constant] watering and the fact that they haven't been able to spray."

Repeating a joke she had heard from a grower earlier, Ms. Lochridge continued, "Farming is like gambling -- it's like standing at the craps table except at the casino, you're inside and you get free liquor."

That sense of humor is typical of Florida's agricultural community, which has persevered through a decade of disease, pestilence, foreign competition and atypical weather.

"This is the reality of the life we've chosen," Mr. Spencer said. "You can't get too down in the mouth. That's the way it's always been and the way it always will be. Mother Nature sometimes lets you know she's always there. You just pick up and move on."