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TAMPA, FL -- A hard freeze watch remained in effect for much of Florida through Thursday morning, Dec. 9, as the state's growers battled an unwelcome early arctic blast that shattered low-temperature records from Tampa Bay to Ft. Lauderdale.

Citrus and strawberries made it through two nights of sub-freezing weather in good shape, but vegetables and tomatoes are already showing signs of damage.

It will be days or weeks before the extent of crop damage due to the early chill is known. Meanwhile, growers Wednesday, Dec. 8, were preparing for another night of sub-freezing temperatures, with lows forecast in the high 20s from the Panhandle through central Florida, with borderline freezing forecasts for the southern part of the state. Worse, after a weekend warm-up, another cold front is projected to move into the state, bringing potentially even-colder weather.

Citrus growers throughout Florida misted groves and strawberry farmers watered blooming plants to create protective layers of ice. Vegetable and tomato growers ran 74-degree water along rows in an attempt to salvage crops already on the vine and protect those ready to bear as Florida's winter vegetable season begins in earnest.

In some areas, helicopters circled fields in an attempt to keep warm, moist air from irrigation efforts hovering over crops. That practice led to near tragedy in south Florida in the early hours of Dec. 8, as three copters crashed in separate events in fields near Pahokee, FL, on the shores of Lake Okeechobee, between midnight and dawn. Two pilots walked away, while the third was hospitalized with severe but not life-threatening injuries.

"We're hearing from the Belle Glade area that there is some serious damage to the sweet corn and beans there. It doesn't look good," Barbara Wunder of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association told The Produce News Wednesday morning. "I'm also hearing there's frost on celery, but it may survive because it's heartier."

Liz Compton of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services also told The Produce News Wednesday morning, "The salad bowl around Lake Okeechobee is probably the hardest hit area. We're definitely going to see some damage. It's really too soon to tell how much … right now. All crops combined in the whole state, there's about $700 million exposed. That doesn't mean they're going to be harmed. We're probably looking at two- and-a-half-to three percent losses. We're not looking at anything catastrophic at this point. But it's still early and we've got a lot of things in the ground."

Florida tomato growers -- who lost 80 percent of last season's crop to unprecedented freezes in January and February -- took another beating through the first two nights of the current cold snap.

"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, F, told The Produce News Dec. 7. "We'll have a fight on our hands the next couple of days."

Strawberries held up well through two nights of cold. "A couple of cold nights aren't going to kill anything," said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Plant City, FL, told The Produce News Wednesday morning, Dec. 8. "The impact could go anywhere from nothing to a little. We can go through a couple of cold nights without any damage, but this cold pattern has to stop."

Mr. Campbell said that strawberry growers' primary concern at this point is protecting blooming plants rather than those already bearing fruit. The industry is mindful of events last January and February, when constant water usage by growers drained local wells, leaving homeowners without water and creating sinkholes in the central part of the state, as is cautiously utilizing resources to protect fields most endangered by the cold.

Said Mr. Campbell, "We're persevering the next couple of days and just hoping somebody closes the refrigerator door."

Florida's citrus crop has apparently escaped damage so far. Temperatures in primary citrus-producing areas did not dip low enough for long enough duration to cause damage.

The National Weather Service said Wednesday morning that the worst is likely over in this first cold snap of the season, with temperatures predicted to rise slowly over the next couple of days before climbing into the 60s and 70s this weekend (Dec. 11-12). On Monday, Dec. 13, second cold front is expected to move in that potentially could bring temperatures even lower than those experienced in the state the week of Dec. 6.