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Freezing temperatures blast Florida; cold will persist through at least Jan. 11

Freeze warnings remained in effect Tuesday morning, Jan. 5, for the state of Florida as far south as Miami on the east coast and Naples on the west, with sub-freezing low temperatures predicted to continue through at least Monday, Jan. 11.

According to the National Weather Service, a "reinforcing shot of colder and drier air pushing through the area will set the stage for a threat of freezing temperatures late tonight and Wednesday morning & for four to six hours & except for two to four hours along the [western Florida] Treasure Coast. Outlying areas south of Interstate 4 (which bisects the state roughly east to west from Daytona to Tampa) could have two to three hours of low temperatures below 28 degrees."

Florida strawberry production is centered in Plant City, just south of I-4 in the western part of the state.

Forecast lows in the mid- to high 20s would shatter existing records in areas including Orlando and Miami if reached.

One Accuweather agricultural meteorologist predicted temperatures in Florida between 27 and 34 degrees Tuesday morning and perhaps Wednesday morning but said that the lows should not be sustained long enough to cause significant crop damage.

Florida farmers have yet to note losses from the icy arctic air mass that blasted the state over the weekend of Jan. 2-3, with an even more threatening blow expected this weekend (Jan. 9-10).

"I've never been through something like this where it's [several] consecutive days of sub-freezing temperatures," industry veteran Sal Toscano of Plant City, FL, berry producer Sunny Ridge Farms told The Produce News Jan. 4. "I'll tell you the same thing I'm telling my bosses: I don't really know what to expect, I don't know what's going to happen. No one does. I know at best there's going to be a lot of water [sprayed on plants in an attempt to hold temperatures at 32 degrees]. This thing looks like it's going to last to another four or five days. Anything I tell you can be wrong in another 24 hours. How it's going to affect us long term I'm not sure. I'm not sure I can remember a period where they were calling for sub-freezing temps for this long, and there's another front coming for the weekend. It's day to day."

Florida strawberry and citrus producers weathered the first three days of freezing temperatures with little damage recorded, though Mr. Toscano noted that some loss is unavoidable.

Exposed plant sets were covered with layers of insulating plastic. Strawberry fields were sprayed with water to encase berries in a protective layer of ice. Meanwhile, citrus groves across the state were enshrouded in a fog produced by misters spraying 68-degree water in an effort to cloak the trees in a protective cloud.

But even the best protective measures could prove in vain if Florida experiences sustained, sub-freezing temperatures for several nights in a row. Accompanying low humidity exacerbates the danger, since there is little moisture to help protect plants.

"Anything that's open to the air is going to be a problem," said Chuck Weisinger of Fort Myers, FL, produce broker Weis-Buy Farms. "Stuff north of the Caloosahatchee River (which runs parallel from the western edge of Lake Okeechobee to Fort Myers) could be in trouble. It depends on how much cold weather we get for how long and whether the wind continues and whether we continue to get a cloud cover. I just don't see any relief with this."

One Florida produce industry veteran, who asked not to be identified, told The Produce News Tuesday night, Jan. 4, that he feared that the tomato and vegetable crops centered on Palmetto and Ruskin could be lost. "I think the Palmetto-Ruskin deal is done," he said.

Meanwhile, Florida farmers rushed to pick any fruits or vegetables already in the fields as the National Weather Service predicted even colder temperatures for the rest of the week.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, freezing temperatures were recorded as far south as Lake Okeechobee and Naples Saturday and Sunday nights, Jan. 2 and Jan. 3. Even colder weather was forecast for the remainder of the week, with major citrus-growing areas facing projected temperatures as low as 24 degrees and a potential hard freeze -- three or more hours at temperatures below 32 -- as far south as Lake Okeechobee.

Citrus freezes at 28 degrees, strawberries can bear 26 degrees; more than four hours of unprotected exposure at those temperatures results in major damage. Also at risk are northern Florida broccoli and cabbage, as well as tomatoes, corn and other vegetables in the southern half of the state.

"Everybody's got their pumps ready and working and getting ready to spray, checking the Rainbirds," Mr. Toscano said. "We'll have ice, let it melt, let the fields dry, go in and see what we can [pick] day by day. I wouldn't even attempt to predict what it's going to do before the [coming] weekend."

Wall Street was betting that at least the Florida citrus crop would escape the freeze in good shape. On Dec. 31, orange juice futures for March delivery fell 5.7 percent in anticipation that the impending cold snap would not be significant enough to disrupt production.

The cold snap portends the longest period of freezing weather in Florida in more than a century. Freezes in 1894-95 were so severe that seven of eight banks serving central Florida's citrus corridor collapsed, and the state's citrus industry relocated further south in the aftermath.