view current print edition




Early cold blast surprises Florida farmers; some damage already seen

by Chip Carter | December 06, 2010
TAMPA, FL -- Less than a year after unprecedented cold weather wreaked havoc throughout the state, Florida farmers are again hunkering down for a wintry blast that has their fingers crossed in fields and groves as far south as Palm Beach, just 70 miles north of Miami.

According to the National Weather Service, a major storm front anchored over southeastern Canada and New England is funneling cold winds southward in a pattern that is expected to persist at least through Friday morning, Dec. 10.

Temperatures dipped below freezing in some parts of the state Monday night, Dec. 6, and even colder temperatures are forecast for Dec. 7-8. Overnight lows of 32-36 degrees were reported in Polk, Hendry, DeSoto and Highlands counties in central Florida -- the heart of the state's citrus and strawberry growing regions. Roughly speaking, fruit damage occurs if temperatures are 28 degrees or lower for at least four hours.

Monday night's lows reached the high 20s in parts of Florida and 31 in Palm Beach, but the temperatures were not cold enough and long enough to cause damage to citrus or strawberries. Growers are misting orange groves and spraying strawberry fields with water to form protective sheets of ice.

Tomato growers, on the other hand, already know that their crop sustained damage from Monday night's freeze, with two more rough nights on the way. Florida tomato production is mostly located in the southwestern part of the state, where temperatures are often colder than inland and further north in a geographic anomaly.

"There has definitely been some pretty good damage; we'll get a better feel over the next couple of days," Bob Spencer of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, FL, told The Produce News at 11 a.m. Dec. 7. "We're expecting more of the same tonight and tomorrow -- same thing upper 20s and lower 30s. We'll have a fight on our hands the next couple of days."

Mr. Spencer said that all tomato growers can do is run water between rows and hope for the best. Last year's freezes wiped out 80 percent of the Florida tomato crop. "It's frustrating, but what do they say? You can't fight city hall or Mother Nature," he said.

Temperatures in central Florida are expected to dip into the mid-20s tonight (Tuesday, Dec. 7), and freeze warnings have been issued for most of the state.

The cold snap has already affected orange juice prices, sending futures Monday to their highest level in three-and-a-half years.

Freeze warnings sent orange juice futures soaring to their highest level in three-and-a-half years on Monday also. Barring drastic variances from the forecast lows, the cold could actually aid the Florida citrus crop by putting trees into a dormant state that prevents new leaf growth while continuing to bear fruit. Those new leaves and shoots are most vulnerable to future freezes, and Florida citrus growers said that the early cold snap could act like a vaccination against further cold weather this winter.

(Updates will be posted on this site as new information becomes available.)