view current print edition




Record highs in January, record lows in March have Florida growers wondering what will come next

Newcomers to Florida who complain about the weather are often told, "Don't worry -- wait five minutes and it will change." In most years, that is a jest: Florida weather is reliably cool and dry in the fall and winter and hot and wet in late spring and summer. This year, however, Mother Nature has been schizophrenic.

After an exceptionally warm January, a late (by Florida standards) freeze March 4 put a crimp in some crops. More troublesome, cooler weather has lingered, a trend weather forecasts FL-Spring-4-copyTomato fields near Immokalee, FL, are in excellent shape this year, as are the majority of the state's crops. (Photo by Chip Carter)suggest could continue into mid-April.

Or not.

Whether attributable to climate change or simple quirks of nature, Florida's normally reliable weather patterns are askew so far in 2013.

Florida experienced record-high temperatures in January, leading many to speculate the rest of 2013 would be even warmer than usual. But the month of March turned those predictions upside down, starting with the freeze and continuing throughout the month (with a lone uptick in temperatures during the third week). In Tampa, March 27 brought a new record low of 37 degrees, besting the previous low of 39 reached in 1984. Similar weather befell the rest of the state, with below-freezing temperatures noted in northern Florida. National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Lewis warned in late March that in the coming days "You're going to be brushing up against some new records there."

The uncharacteristic cold snap did not present a significant frost danger but it could hamper development and ripening of crops across the state.

After predictions of an early start, blueberries may actually be a week later than normal. Strawberries are finishing up early, in part because high heat early in the season spurred production but also because shortages have made finding ample labor difficult. Green beans will be late and volume will be diminished since the March 4 freeze basically resulted in a restart to the season. Sweet corn volumes will also be down, with 15-20 percent of the crop damaged from the cold. Cantaloupe is delayed. The watermelon deal may or may not come off as usual. And the citrus crop is, in the words of one analyst, "falling apart."

Only tomatoes have thus far been spared by the unpredictable weather (and even that market has benefited from freezing temperatures in Mexican production areas and the recently renegotiated Tomato Suspension Agreement that sets higher floor prices for imports from south of the border) and there is still concern that lingering cool weather could delay pollination.

"Even when things are perfect, sometimes they're not that good," Gene McAvoy from the Hendry County Extension Service in southwest Florida said. "The plants got off to a great start. We worried watermelon would come in too early -- cold can damage leaves on squash and watermelon, and then disease comes in. And pollination for plants like tomatoes becomes a challenge when you get below 40 degrees."

To make matters more challenging, with parts of the state already facing water shortages, rainfall over the last six months has been about half normal levels. Some areas have fared even worse. Orlando, in the center of the state, has had just 3.5 inches of rain since Dec. 1 compared to its normal 10.3 inches.

Dry conditions are likely to worsen over the Florida peninsula into the first part of the summer -- high pressure at most levels of the atmosphere will inhibit rainfall into June, the NWS said -- before reversing later. Southwest Florida is currently classified as "extremely dry" and northeast Florida is in "severe" drought.

Meanwhile, Florida citrus growers would like to know why their fruit is literally falling off the tree.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent crop estimate for Florida citrus shows a decrease from the original forecast of 141 million boxes -- which was already down considerably from 2012's 146.6 million boxes -- to 139 million boxes, primarily due to an unprecedented fruit drop.

Late season Valencias have had an exceedingly high droppage rate of 22 percent, with weeks still left in the harvest. The Navel orange deal wrapped up in January with a droppage rate of 27 percent. White and colored grapefruit have been falling off trees at a rate of 21 percent.

No one is exactly sure why, but most believe the lingering effects of huanglongbing -- the "citrus greening disease" that has affected 32 citrus growing counties in the state and caused an estimated $4.5 million in economic damage, according to the University of Florida -- is to blame.

"Citrus greening has become more of a problem than anyone imagined," Shawn Hackett, president of Boynton Beach, FL-based Hackett Financial Advisors Inc. told Bloomberg News recently. "Something's happening here that's unexplainable by weather. It's been a pretty normal winter, but the crop's falling apart."

While Florida citrus growers have so far fought citrus greening to a draw, there is no cure for the blight and it is rearing its ugly head in ways previously not thought of.

That recently led the Florida Department of Citrus Scientific Research Department to rebrand itself to reflect a new mission focusing on monitoring orange juice quality and flavor that might be affected by greening. The department's new name is the Center of Citrus Nutrition and Quality Research.

"We're changing our focus to bring the flavor aspect more into our mission than in the past," said Director Dan King.

To help with flavor analysis, the commission approved spending $164,145 over the next two years to purchase a new machine capable of identifying chemicals in orange juice that impact its flavor profile and ensure that greening does not have an effect on the taste and quality of the overall Florida product.