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Bitter cold blasts Florida in record-setting night; damage toll rising

by Chip Carter | December 27, 2010
TAMPA, FL -- Bitter cold blasted Florida as far south as Homestead Dec. 27 and in the early hours of Dec. 28. It was the coldest night of what has to date been one of the more brutal Decembers in state history. Low temperature records were shattered in several areas in Florida, and the thermometer is again expected to dip below freezing Dec. 28-29 in parts of the state.

Tomatoes and row crops -- already hard hit by freeze events the weeks of Dec. 6 and 13 -- were clobbered again by temperatures that dipped as low as 17 degrees in some production areas. Some citrus growers were said to be cutting solid ice in fruit, and fear twig and small limb damage. Strawberries survived the blast again, but growers lost more production time in what is typically one of their more profitable months.

David Griffis of the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences said that lows of 23 degrees were recorded in citrus-producing Pierson and Volusia counties, the coldest night of the season, resulting in icy fruit.

Temperatures in the citrus-growing areas along the Indian River area dropped below freezing after midnight and continued to plummet. Some areas recorded temperatures below 28 degrees for an hour or two, but so significant damage was expected, according to Tim Gaver of IFAS.

George Casey, a berry grower in Brooksville, FL (about an hour north of Tampa) recorded a low of 17 degrees and sustained temperatures well below freezing for several hours.

Lows in the mid-20s were recorded in Wauchula in the center of the state, with moderate frost but little crop damage due to successful mitigation efforts aided by a lack of wind.

Immokalee in southwest Florida, home to much of the state’s tomato and row crop production, reached the freezing point at 11:30 p.m. and remained below 32 degrees until 8 a.m., with a low of 25 degrees. "What crops that made it through the last freeze probably will not make it through this one," said Jerry Hubbart of the Immokalee Farmers Market. The area was covered with a thick layer of frost the morning of Dec. 28 and Mr. Hubbart said, “I have not seen it this white for this long in a very long time.”

Palm Beach County reached 30 degrees, and Homestead in deep southeast Florida had lows between 30 and 32 degrees for six to eight hours. Any exposed crops that survived earlier freeze events and were not aided by overhead irrigation undoubtedly sustained damage, said Paul Cardwell of the Homestead State Farmers Market.

Strawberries fared well despite temperatures in the low 20s in Plant City, FL, where most of the state’s production is centered. Ted Campbell of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association said that a lack of wind let growers evenly cover fruit in the fields in a protective layer of ice; sporadic pump failures did lead to some product damage.

Of bigger concern to strawberry growers is the loss of a valuable market window. By Christmas 2009, Florida strawberry growers had harvested almost 10,000 acres of berries. Through Christmas of this year, that number tallied around 2000 acres.