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Freeze losses mounting as Florida farmers tally December damage

by Chip Carter | January 05, 2011
TAMPA, FL -- Sub-freezing weather that blasted Florida over three weeks in December will cost growers at least $200 million in crop damages, with the full tally from citrus yet to be counted.

Record-setting cold hit the state the weeks of Dec. 6 and Dec. 13, and even colder temperatures followed Dec. 27-28. Temperatures across the state averaged more than 10 degrees below normal for the month, and during the three main cold snaps averaged 30 degrees or more below normal.

Temperatures as cold as 17 degrees were noted in some production areas, and records fell across the state. Sunny Daytona Beach reached a bone- chilling 24 degrees Dec. 27, and temperatures in the 20s were recorded as far south as Belle Glade and West Palm Beach. Even the southernmost areas of the state recorded multiple nights of sub-freezing temperatures.

Estimates from the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services put freeze losses through Dec. 20 at $115 million in crop damages and $273 million in overall economic impact. Those figures will no doubt climb when damage reports are completed for the Dec. 27-28 freezes.

Row crops were devastated across the state. Green beans that sold for $10 per box Dec. 1 were priced at over $40 per box by the end of the month. December tomato production was wiped out, and the industry will be affected into the new year. Many citrus growers were forced to salvage frozen crops for juice. Of the state's commodity groups, strawberries escaped with the least damage, since weather conditions were favorable for mitigation efforts throughout the freezes. Still, Florida strawberry growers hampered by weather were able to harvest only about one-third of the volume of a normal December.

"The strawberry plant is a pretty darn tough bird," said Ted Campbell, director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Dover, FL. "You're not going to kill the plant, but it will go dormant. What hurts us is the missed market opportunity -- we're not like the green bean guys. We could have been a lot worse off. There's a little attrition but nothing really severe. A lot of crops have more devastation than we have' it's the slowdown factor that kills us. There was some bloom loss. And weird things happen after frost or rain. We may have some misshapes later on."

A full report on citrus damage is expected Jan. 18 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, Florida Field Office. Agency surveyors were tallying the damage in Florida groves in a special survey to be conducted Jan. 10-11.

There is concern among citrus growers that the third cold snap may have been the cruelest, resulting in "significant" twig and limb damage that could affect at least the rest of this season's crop. Growers cut solid ice in grapefruit and oranges in some groves, and slushy fruit was seen across the state.

"All in all, there is damage to be expected throughout the state, and the full extent will not be easily determined for several weeks," said Michael Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual. "No doubt the freeze damage will result in box loss as well as reduced solids."

There will be short-term production gaps in many Florida commodities as growers thaw out after the big freeze. While strawberry production has ramped up to full volume, it will be weeks before row crops and tomatoes come back on-line, and the picture for citrus is unclear pending the results of the NASS survey.

"We've already seen price hikes in row crops obviously. You've got demand and no supply -- that's just the way it goes. And we're going to see some temporary hikes" across the board, said Liz Compton, spokesperson for the Florida ag department.

Since Dec. 28, temperatures across the state have returned to near-normal, with days in the low to mid-70s and nights in the 40s and 50s. Meteorologist Daniel Noah of the National Weather Service in Tampa told The Produce News that he believes the worst of the winter weather is over.

A weather pattern called the Arctic Oscillation hovering over eastern Canada was responsible for diverting frigid winds to the Deep South. That pattern began to break up in the last week of December, paving the way for an expected La Nina weather pattern to move in. La Nina should create a barrier north of Interstate 4 (which bisects Florida east-west from Daytona Beach to Tampa Bay) that typically prevents colder weather from penetrating south.

"It looks like we're going to warm up to normal or just above normal for the next three months," Mr. Noah said. "La Nina affects where the upper level jet stream is: cold to the north, warm to the south. It doesn't mean we won't get freezing temperatures again, but we'll be back to normal instead of this record-breaking cold. We should be warming up, and hopefully we won't have to talk about this again for the rest of the winter."