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Florida farmers survive another freezing night; crop damage reported across state

by Chip Carter | December 14, 2010
TAMPA, FL -- Though temperatures again have been predicted to dip below freezing in parts of the state in the early hours of Dec. 16, Florida farmers appear to have survived the worst of an unprecedented early season cold snap that began Dec. 6 and saw heavy freezing as far south as Belle Glade, FL, on the eastern shores of Lake Okeechobee.

All commodities sustained some damage -- how much will not be clear for several days. But multiple freeze events the weeks of Dec. 6 and Dec. 13 were not thought to have been catastrophic on Dec. 15.

The night of Dec. 14-15 was the coldest yet, with temperatures as low as 19 degrees recorded in strawberry fields in Plant City, FL, while Belle Glade reached 21 degrees. Worse, the temperatures were sustained over a longer duration than any other night during the cold snap.

"We went below freezing at 10:30 p.m.; at 1 a.m. we were hovering at 28 and stayed there all night," said Gene McAvoy of the Hendry County Extension Service in southwestern Florida, home to much of the state's tomato production. "There’s not a lot you can do."

Older tomato plants -- those set to bear before the end of December -- were virtually wiped out across the state, though younger plants appear to have survived with some damage. Mr. McAvoy said, "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."

Citrus growers cut fruit with ice inside across the state the morning of Dec. 15, and Florida Citrus Mutual noted via Twitter at 10 a.m. that there had been "fruit damage to all growing regions. Irrigation helped, but still some slush ice cut. Still assessing if any long-term damage."

Row crops in the southern part of the state were damaged by two freezes the week of Dec. 6. Those crops got a reprieve Dec. 13-14, when temperatures stalled short of freezing in Belle Glade (southeast Florida) and Immokalee (southwest Florida). But Dec. 14-15 again saw sub-freezing temperatures that will undoubtedly result in serious damage to commodities like beans, squash, sugar cane, peppers, cucumbers and sweet corn.

Strawberries in the Plant City, FL, 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 talked to today didn’t feel like there’s anything serious," Mr. Campbell said at noon Dec. 15. He expected strawberry growers to begin harvesting again as soon as Dec. 17.

Liz Compton of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services told The Produce News at noon Dec. 15, "We’re not hearing catastrophic yet, but the day is young, and it’s going to take days for us to establish what has happened to some of the specialty crops."

Lisa Lochridge of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association told The Produce News at 11 a.m. Dec. 15, "Definitely last night was much more of a significant event than the night before. Hardest hit were tomatoes in the Immokalee area and sweet corn in Belle Glade. Whatever green beans were left got hit very hard. I talked to a lettuce grower who said there was some ice, but they didn’t think it was going to be too significant -- it’s going to affect volume, but they weren’t wiped out by any stretch."

That seemed to be the case across the state -- there is damage to every commodity in varying degrees, but the toll does not approach that of January and February of this year, when Florida endured 31 sub-freezing nights, a dozen of which came consecutively.

"It’s been pretty rough. It’s not as bad as last year, but it’s pretty bad," Mr. McAvoy said. "If we get some [good] weather, we may be able to pull some of those younger plantings through. If not, it may be like last year; we may salvage the crop but not get a heck of a lot out of it."

Ms. Compton said, "It certainly doesn’t rise to the level of last January, but I haven’t talked to anybody who’s really happy. Nobody’s saying we dodged a bullet -- maybe we dodged a big bullet and just got hit by a small bullet."

There will be short-term production gaps in many Florida commodities as growers thaw out after the big freeze. Tomatoes are likely off-line for the rest of December. Strawberry production will be hampered as fields dry out and plants shocked into dormancy by the cold slowly begin to produce again. Citrus frozen by the cold will be used for juice, resulting in a shortage of fresh product. Row crops like beans and corn will be unavailable or in short supply for 70-90 days before replants begin to bear.

"We’re going to see some temporary price hikes. We’ve already seen hikes in row crops. You’ve got demand and no supply, that’s just the way it goes," Ms. Compton said. "But I don’t see any huge, can’t-afford-it type of increases."

Mr. McAvoy was also optimistic that a short-term drop in production, coupled with the fact that these freeze events came early in the Florida season, "might help prevent some of that [market] congestion we saw last year with everybody scrambling trying to get something in before the end of the window."