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Florida farmers weather freezing night, prepare for one more

by Chip Carter | December 13, 2010
TAMPA, FL -- Temperatures dipped into the low- to mid-20s and winds gusted to 30 mph across Florida the night of Dec. 13 and into the early hours of Dec. 14, but most of the state's produce commodities survived with surprisingly little damage, though there was one more night of shivering temperatures to get through in this second cold snap of the season.

Reggie Brown, executive director of the Florida Tomato Committee in Maitland, FL, told The Produce News at 11 a.m. Dec. 14, "I think overall folks are kind of breathing a sigh of relief. Considering what was forecast, we got off reasonably light last night -- but we've still got another night to go through."

There is damage to the Florida tomato crop, mostly from wind abrasion. Mr. Brown said that the crop in the field "is not going to look pretty" due to wind damage, but it should survive the Dec. 13-14 lows and for the most part make it through another night of subfreezing temperatures expected Dec. 14-15.

Row crops in the southeastern part of the state were battered by freezing weather the week of Dec. 6 but were spared further damage Dec. 13-14, which had projected lows between 30-32 degrees that instead stalled at just above freezing, with a low of 33 degrees recorded in Belle Glade, FL.

Strawberries took a minor hit; high winds hindered watering efforts, and plants in the corners of fields were not completely encased in a protective layer of ice.

"You're going to see some burned spots in the corners. It was windy, and we didn't get water everywhere," Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Plant City, FL, told The Produce News the morning of Dec. 14. "Tonight looks like a bigger torture test. There will be no wind, but it will be colder for more hours. We'll be able to get better water coverage due to the lack of wind. We've got another night to get through. We'll take what's dealt to us -- we're going to go forward, get through tonight, assess the damage and continue."

Citrus came through virtually unscathed. Despite temperatures in the mid- 20s in many production areas, weather conditions were excellent for mitigation efforts. "We're in good shape," said Florida Citrus Mutual spokesperson Andrew Meadows. "Scattered reports of ice, nothing material. We'll have our fingers crossed tonight [and are] optimistic."

After rising to a three-year high Dec. 13 of $1.706, orange juice futures dropped 5.3 cents to $1.6165 at 11:35 a.m. Dec. 14 as it became clear citrus dodged a bullet.

Temperatures were predicted to drop into the high 20s again Dec. 14-15 across the state -- on-average 30 degrees colder than normal. Only Homestead and Miami are expected to escape the freeze in Florida, with temperatures hovering just above freezing forecast for the extreme southeastern section of the state. The duration of freezing temperatures is expected to be longer Dec. 14-15 than Dec. 13-14, but with little accompanying wind, mitigation efforts should be more effective.

While damage from the December freezes is minimal so far -- save for the loss of several hundred acres of fragile row crops the week of Dec. 6 -- growers and commodity groups caution that the fallout from the early spate of freezing weather may not become apparent for a few days. Mr. Campbell said, "You're not going to see the damage manifest for a week or so."