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Damages still unclear as Florida farmers thaw out; row crops, tomatoes took a beating

by Chip Carter | December 19, 2010
TAMPA, FL -- Florida growers have now had a few days to survey the damage from a pair of unprecedented early-season cold snaps the weeks of Dec. 6 and Dec. 13, and one thing has become clear: Nothing will become clear for a few more days.

Liz Compton of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services told The Produce News Dec. 20, "We're really not going to know anything until the end of the week or the beginning of next week."

“To the uninitiated, some things that might look fine in the field have sustained damage that the eye can’t see,” said Gene McAvoy of the Hendry County Extension Service in southwestern Florida, which is the state’s predominant tomato-producing area.

Citrus is believed to have survived five nights of freezing temperatures -- two the week of Dec. 6 and three the week of Dec. 13 -- with very little damage. Though temperatures dipped into the low 20s in some citrus-producing areas, it is believed that temperatures were not low enough for long enough to cause serious damage. Though icy slush was cut in fruit throughout the region on more than one occasion, overall conditions were excellent for mitigation measures and citrus is thought to have escaped significant harm.

Row crops were virtually destroyed throughout the southern half of the state from Belle Glade in the east to Immokalee in the west. Snap beans and corn were particularly hard hit, and even sugar cane froze to the ground as far south as the shores of Lake Okeechobee.

Tomatoes sustained significant damage. Older plants were hit particularly hard by the freezes. Said Mr. McAvoy, “It’s certainly significant -- I wouldn’t be surprised if 50 percent of the stuff within a couple weeks of maturity is no longer with us.” It is not known how younger plants will pull through, though growers are optimistic that mitigation efforts were at least partially successful in protecting plants that will bear in January or later.

Strawberries in the Plant City area, home to most of the state’s production, survived the cold in fairly good shape, according to Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. But it will be several days before farmers know how the delicate blooms of still-bearing plants held up.

“Most of the guys I’ve talked to didn’t feel like there’s anything serious,” Mr. Campbell said. “We’ll know in a week or so when this bloom cycle actually shows fruit. Weird things happen after frost or rain. We may have some misshapes. There had to be some bloom loss. Some guys used cloth covers instead of running water to cover their fields, and on a windy night those cloth covers beat on those plants and you might as well go out and hit them with a broom.”

The biggest hit to strawberry growers comes from a missed market opportunity, Mr. Campbell said. The first Florida strawberries of the season are usually harvested in November, with December being the month when production ramps up to full speed. By Christmas 2009, Florida growers had harvested 9,000 acres of strawberries. As of Dec. 17, that total was just 1,400.