view current print edition




Florida farmers batten down the hatches as bitter winter weather approaches

by Chip Carter | December 12, 2010
TAMPA, FL -- With hard freeze warnings issued for Florida all the way south to Homestead, Dec. 13 will be a long, tense night for Florida growers. Misters will spray, Rain Bird sprinklers will chatter, helicopters will fly and countless gallons of water will flow through fields until dawn as farmers pull out all the stops to try to hold back an unprecedented early-season onslaught from Mother Nature.

According to the National Weather Service, temperatures are expected to reach freezing by 11 p.m. in Homestead and Miami and hover between 30-32 degrees until 8 a.m. Dec. 14. A similar scenario is projected for southwest Florida, the state's leading tomato-production area. In central Florida, home to many of the state’s citrus groves and roughly all of its strawberry production, temperatures will plunge into the low 20s by midnight Dec. 13 and stay there until well after dawn. The same is true for the state’s Indian River region, another citrus stalwart. Consistent winds in the 5-10 mph range regularly gusting to 25-30 mph will make mitigation efforts more difficult.

Worse, the National Weather Service is predicting that Tuesday night, Dec. 14, will likely be just as bitter. To keep up with demand for weather and crop information, Florida Citrus Mutual is now providing regular weather reports via Twitter at

Citrus growers throughout Florida will mist groves, and strawberry farmers will water blooming plants to create protective layers of ice. Citrus can sustain four hours of 28-degree temperatures without damage; strawberry plants can endure a similar period at 26 degrees. Four hours at 20 degrees can kill 3/8- inch or smaller wood on citrus trees, and temperatures below 28 degrees for 12 continuous hours can kill larger limbs and possibly entire trees. Constant watering keeps the cold at bay via a heat-exchange process -- as the water changes to ice, it gives off heat via a fusion process that maintains a constant temperature of 32 degrees.

Vegetable and tomato growers will run 74-degree water along rows in an attempt to salvage crops already on the vine and protect plants ready to bear. In some areas, helicopters will circle fields in an attempt to keep warm, moist air from irrigation efforts hovering over crops, winds permitting. Regardless, fragile Florida crops like beans and corn will no doubt be damaged even further than they were by a record-shattering cold snap in early December.

Florida farmers were shocked by back-to-back hard freezes the nights of Dec. 7 and Dec. 8 that shattered low-temperature records from Tampa Bay to Ft. Lauderdale. Temperatures dipped into the mid-20s from the Panhandle through central Florida Dec. 7-8, and a low of 26 degrees was recorded in Palm Beach County, just 70 miles north of Miami, in the early hours of Dec. 8.

Citrus and strawberries survived the first wave of cold intact, with very little damage noted in any of the state’s production areas. Winter vegetables were damaged to varying degrees and tomato crops were singed by frost across the state.

Plants got a chance to warm up over a mild weekend Dec. 10-12, and farmers scrambled to harvest fruits and vegetables in their fields ahead of the second forecast cold front. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency that relaxed weight, load and dimension restrictions on vehicles transporting Florida produce in an effort to aid the harried early harvest.

Despite the severity of the cold, Florida growers were hopeful that damage from the cold will be limited, unlike events earlier this year when sub- freezing temperatures were recorded in some areas on as many as a dozen consecutive nights in January and February.

"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. "We’re persevering the next couple of days and just hoping somebody closes the refrigerator door."

The freezes in early December came sooner in the Florida winter fruit and vegetable season than any other in the state’s recorded weather history. Hard freeze events occurred Dec. 12-13 in 1934, 1957 and 1962. The 1934 event was so severe that it led to the creation of the Federal-State Frost Warning Service. The 1957 event was the worst in a 17-year period dating from 1940. And the 1962 freeze caused the most damage to trees and fruit of any other 20th century freeze to that point. Late-December freezes in 1983, 1985 and 1989 were among the more severe in Florida history, annihilating entire groves and prompting many citrus growers to relocate their operations farther south.