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Freeze damage extends deep into south Florida

by Christina DiMartino | January 21, 2010
Some fruit and vegetable producers in subtropical Florida, which extends from the northern edge of Lake Okeechobee south through the Florida Keys, took a hard hit to their crops from the freeze that lingered over the state during the first and second weeks of January. Others, however, were more fortunate.

Duda Farm Fresh Foods, a division of Duda, headquartered in Oviedo, FL, experienced minimal effects in its vegetable crops in Belle Glade, FL. Susan Howard, director of corporate communications for Duda, told The Produce News Jan. 19 that the lowest temperature recorded in the area during the two-week freeze was around 26 degrees.

"There has been some minor damage to the exterior of some of our celery plants, but our projected harvest volumes and overall quality should not change," said Ms. Howard. "We have planted additional blocks to ensure volume. Our radish crop has not been impacted at all in terms of the quality of the harvested crop, although volume will be down slightly due to delayed maturity from the cold."

Duda Farm Fresh Foods' Iceberg and Romaine lettuces had some damage to the outer leaves resulting in some yield loss. The young Iceberg and Romaine crops, however, fared well. The cabbage crop will also experience lower yields and weights.

"At this time, we remain optimistic that our crops have come though without major damage or loss," Ms. Howard added. "All planting and harvesting operations on the farm have resumed. Our citrus groves in LaBelle [FL] are in good shape following the severe cold, which produced at least one heavy frost over the two-week period."

Ms. Howard said that assessments continue to determine the effects on the juice content of the citrus fruit and whether any extensive leaf damage occurred. She added that the LaBelle area of the state probably had the least amount of extreme and extended cold.

J&C Tropicals in Miami did not fare as well. Jessie Capote, vice president of operations, said that the freeze wiped out about 90 percent of the company's boniato crop.

"We spent the weekend of January 16-17 reassessing the damage," said Mr. Capote. "Our initial assessment was a loss of about 90 percent, and it hasn't changed. Of our 1,200 acres of boniato plants, 600 acres were matured to four months or younger. They were completely wiped out because the plants hadn't developed far enough along to withstand the low temperatures. And we lost about half of the remaining more mature crop."

J&C Tropicals grows boniato in several parcels in the Redlands area of south Florida. Mr. Capote said that spreading a crop out can give a company a fighting chance because not all fields are affected the same way during a freeze. But this time it did not help.

Mr. Capote said that his brother Carlos Capote, chief executive officer of the company, said that in his close to 25 years in the business, he does not remember anything like this cold spell.

"The decision we face now is to either walk away and take the losses or use a salvage attempt that would require pouring a lot of resources into the remaining more mature plants to try to rehabilitate them," said Mr. Capote. "That process would require manpower for more watering and the application of different nutrients that we would otherwise not have to use. Another consideration is that it is only the middle of January, and we have another two months before the state is out of the woods regarding freezes. We have not yet decided which route to take."

South Florida is one of the few areas of the United States producing boniato, making sourcing from elsewhere very challenging. Mr. Capote expects the damage to affect supplies for the balance of the year.

"Prices have already jumped to $35 for a 40-pound bag," Mr. Capote said the week of Jan. 18. "The normal price is $16 to $18 a bag. I think the price will go even higher and likely clip out at about $40. We should have inventory for a couple of weeks, but then supplies will get tighter."

The freeze will also affect the next crop of boniato. Mr. Capote explained that seed from one crop is used to sow the following crop. Although the company keeps a stock of seed and is already back to planting on its normal schedule, most of the seed for the next crop was destroyed in the freeze. Details about how much less the company will be able to plant are still sketchy.

Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for Brooks Tropicals in Homestead, FL, said that the company is at the end of its "SlimCado" Florida avocado season. "The avocado crop did not suffer damage during the freeze," said Ms. Ostlund. "We have an entire process in place with irrigation and other capabilities that help protect the crops. Our starfruit crop also fared well. Unless it dips to the teens or lower, we aren't faced with the problems that we know other producers in the state are facing."

Five Bros. Produce Inc. in Florida City, FL, is another grower that suffered major losses. The company produces mostly row crops, such as green beans, yellow squash, pole beans and corn.

"As we are assessing, every day looks worse," said Tommy Torbert, company president. "We are looking at between 70 [percent and] 80 percent losses across the board. We're in the middle of our season, and we stay on a planting schedule, so we cannot replant. This is just a loss we're not going to recoup."

Mr. Torbert said that damage from the freeze will likely put some companies out of business and cause substantial job losses.

"In years past, we could pay our people and still survive through a disaster like this," he said. "It's impossible to do that today."

He continued, "Prices will go sky high. The beneficiaries of this freeze will be Mexico and other areas that have product. We do some sourcing from Mexico, which helps keep our customers supplied this season."