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Florida growers grappling with after-effects of unprecedented freeze

by Chip Carter | February 09, 2010
PLANT CITY, FL -- For the past month, temperatures have been near normal throughout Florida, but the state's growers are still grappling with the after- effects of an unprecedented two-week New Year's freeze that caused as much as $1 billion in economic losses.

The first hard data on the economic impact of the big freeze are beginning to roll in and support anecdotal evidence and estimates previously reported in The Produce News of $1 billion in lost product, revenues and wages.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's crop report released Tuesday, Feb. 9, noted that the freeze caused "significant damage to citrus, reduced strawberry production and completely ruined snap bean, squash and tomato fields. Young sugarcane acreage was burned back, while the tops of the older crop were frozen."

All 67 Florida counties have been declared federal disaster areas; 60 of those sustained losses of at least 30 percent of agricultural crops.

"Record cold temperatures over an unprecedented 12-day period dealt a serious blow to Florida agriculture," U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam [R-FL] said in a Feb. 9 statement. "I spent several days inspecting farms across our state, and it is clear that every sector of Florida agriculture -- from aquaculture to zucchini -- was affected. [The disaster declaration] will make federal resources, such as low- interest loans, available to help farmers get back on their feet and return to productivity as soon a possible. It's important to everyone that we rebound from this weather event quickly."

The Feb. 9 USDA report reduced the agency's original forecast for Florida orange production by 6 million boxes, to 129 million. About 3 million boxes of Valencias were lost, along with 3 million boxes of other early and midseason varieties. Grapefruit production was reduced to 18.8 million boxes from 19.5 million boxes. Tangelo production held steady at 900,000 boxes, but the tangerine forecast was reduced by 700,000, to 4 million boxes. Orange juice yields are expected to be 1.56 gallons per 90-pound box, down from 1.6 gallons.

Estimates of damage to other crops are still coming together. According to the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences, the five- county area (Lee, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Charlotte) responsible for much of the state's vegetable production lost 52,600 acres of bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, beans, tomatoes and sweet corn. That represents an overall economic loss of almost $700 million. Roughly 90 percent of Florida's corn crop was destroyed, along with 85 percent of beans and 80 percent of tomatoes.

Area farm laborers lost $24 million in income, and there are concerns that growers may face a labor shortage when harvesting begins again due to worker relocation.

Lisa Lochridge of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association told The Produce News, "That's the thing that people don't think of -- you certainly have that ripple effect to the local economies. When packinghouses that would be going full steam are shuttered, that gets felt in the community."

While growers are immersed in the aftermath of the freeze, "No one really wants to keep talking about it," Samantha Winters of the Florida Tomato Committee told The Produce News. "We are packing, and we do have tomatoes. We're just kind of transitioning now. [Volume] is less, but we're still in the business. We're still packing. It's a risk that comes with having a winter crop. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. It's pretty painful when it doesn't. We definitely took a beating. We'll be hoping for good weather in the spring."

Some freeze damage might not show up for months or years.

Andrew Meadows of Florida Citrus Mutual said, "Besides us saying anecdotally we know we have damage, we're still trying to figure out how much long- term tree damage there is. It might not be apparent until next year or five years down the road; yields might decrease over time. It's a diverse and complex situation but not catastrophic."

Some industry sectors that avoided crop damage, like strawberries, will still face mounting economic challenges in the coming weeks. Growers lost two weeks of peak production. They are now combating fungus and disease as a result of non-stop watering during the freeze. And they will face market challenges as a plethora of product enters the market at once in a couple of weeks.

"We're picking, we're getting good fruit, the yields are coming back -- there's a lot to be said for the fact that we're not just sitting here wishing we had any crop left," said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. "But there's an assumption that since we survived the freeze, everything's hunky dory. It's not. The operation was a success, but the patient died. We saved the plants, and a lot of people think the farmers are OK now, but that's not necessarily true. Their backs are against the wall."

He continued, "The market's up and down like a yo-yo right now and is going to be pretty unpredictable for the rest of the year. They're really just trying to recoup some money; there have been a lot of mean cards dealt to us. By the end of the month, there's going to be a big flood of fruit. Strawberries will be a consumer value, no question. But at least we're picking, there's some cash flow coming, the harvest is going on, workers are getting paid."

It may be slight consolation to growers, but there could be a silver lining to the freeze. Growers will likely have fewer pest problems to deal with in coming months. Researchers got an exceedingly rare opportunity to gather data on cold weather in tropical and sub-tropical zones and will develop new loss mitigation procedures from that. They will also study the hardiness of crops and isolated plants that survived.

Still, "When you're using every tool in your toolkit to protect your crops, when you're talking about 11-12 days of subfreezing temperatures, there really is only so much you can do," Ms. Lochridge said. "Not to wax philosophical, but growers have always been at the whims and mercy of Mother Nature, and she just didn't cut us a break on this one."