Crops mostly spared by freeze

Joe Morales, a leasing agent at a nearby Bosshardt Property Management, watches Thursday as a small winter wonderland forms from a running sprinkler at the southwest corner of NW 43rd Street and NW 39th Avenue.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 4, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 4, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

TAMPA - Florida's citrus growers may have been spared major damage from an overnight cold snap, but it will be a day or more before strawberry farmers know the extent of their losses.

Plant City farmer Carl Grooms surveyed his fields Thursday afternoon and spotted numerous plants with berry damage. It was a sight he suspected other farmers east of Tampa witnessed in their fields hours after temperatures dropped below freezing.

"If I've got damage, I'm sure they do too," Grooms said. But his plants seemed intact, preserving hopes that his fields would bounce back.

Most Florida crops, including the country's largest citrus industry, weathered the winter's first freeze well. There will likely be isolated damage to vegetable and citrus plants, but not enough to harm production. An exact tally of the damages won't be known for several days.

"It could have been far, far worse," said Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

A serious freeze would have been devastating to Florida's citrus trees, already struggling from years of diseases and hurricanes. But most groves are in Central and South Florida, where temperatures hovered in the high 20s and low 30s. Trees can be ruined when temperatures fall to 28 degrees for four hours.

Forecasters predicted higher overnight temperatures for late Thursday and early today - good news for farmers who had already spent a sleepless night watching thermometers and freezing crops inside a protective sheen of ice.

For many, daybreak and rising temperatures were a relief.

"Mother Nature cut us a break this time and now we can continue to produce the quality citrus crop Florida is known for," said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of grower advocacy group Florida Citrus Mutual.

Temperatures were not below freezing long enough to cause widespread damage to citrus trees, the group said. In fact, the cold could benefit some growers because it slows growth and hardens citrus trees.

Orange juice futures for immediate delivery fell 6.20 cents Thursday to settle at $1.4110 a pound on the New York Board of Trade.

The lowest temperature recorded in Florida on Thursday was 20 in Cross City, the National Weather Service said. Snow flurries were reported near the Daytona Beach coastline - the first in Florida since 2006.

The cold temperatures did not appear to damage cabbage, broccoli and other crops growing in north Florida. Those are more resistant to freezes, McElroy said.

But many inland areas east of Tampa had below freezing temperatures for six hours or more - a potentially bad harbinger for certain crops like strawberries. This year's strawberry crop is estimated to be worth $273 million, although growers are early in their season, which runs through April.

Ninety percent of that crop is grown in eastern Hillsborough County, according to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

At Gary Parke's 250 acre farm in Dover, workers contended with a 10-inch water main bursting overnight, which hampered efforts to spray water on his crops and will likely increase his losses, he said.

He predicted 10 percent to 15 percent of the overall strawberry crop may have sustained damage.

The freezing weather comes as Florida tourism officials unveiled a revamped Web site aimed at "people interested in escaping the ice, snow and freezing temperatures this winter."

Fortunately for those escaping, or unaccustomed to the cold, temperatures are expected to return to the 70s across much of the state by the weekend.

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