Farmers leery of cold spell

Roy Brown, the owner of Brown's Farm, inspects lettuce destroyed by the recent freezing temperatures in his fields near State Road 26 near Melrose on Wednesday. Brown said his customers don't expect picture-perfect produce from him but the freezes have destroyed his cauliflower.

Caitlin Heely/Special to The Sun
Published: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 10:42 p.m.

Area farmers are reporting damage to strawberries and other crops while residents' lawns have taken a hit from the prolonged cold spell that ebbed Wednesday in North Central Florida.

Farmers say it's too early to assess the extent of the damage and are hoping a return to normal temperatures will help.

"I have strawberries, cauliflower, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts - a little bit of everything. It definitely hit all of the crops," Roy Brown said at his farm on State Road 26 near Melrose. "I think the cauliflower got the worst of it. It burned the heads off. The mustard may grow out. There was definitely some damage to the strawberries, but hopefully there will be some good ones, too."

Overall, prices for fruits and vegetables grown in Florida probably will increase because less supply and because those items will have to be shipped in from other states or countries.

Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens said the company has enough produce in its supply chain at the moment.

"Strawberries are being strained. We are looking at other resources such as California," Stevens said. "Price increases haven't happened yet, but you can anticipate that. When supplies are limited, that's what is going to happen."

Meanwhile, many yards - particularly those with St. Augustine grass - appear damaged and likely will need some extra care once spring arrives, said Wendy Wilber, Alachua County environmental horticulture extension agent.

Wilber said she has seen many yards in which the grass is brown and appears burned.

St. Augustine grass is common in the region because it is heat tolerant.

But it does not fare as well in the cold.

"A lot of times it takes a while for that grass to recover from cold damage like we've had," Wilber said. "The winter weeds will overtake struggling grass. That's one thing we worry about - weeds exploding. The other is a fungal disease called take-all root rot."

The frigid weather brought 12 consecutive days of freezing temperatures to the region, setting several records in the process.

Today's high is expected to be a seasonable 66 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

Highs will climb into the low 70s Friday and Saturday, with rain forecast for Saturday.

Lows are expected to be about 43 tonight and in the mid-50s Friday and Saturday nights.

The statewide temperature plunge of the past week affected two of Florida's major winter crops - citrus, with an annual economic impact of $9 billion, and strawberries, at $272 million.

Strawberries are a prime winter crop in Alachua and Bradford counties.

Brown said he was in the process of harvesting his strawberries when the freezes hit.

But another quirk in the weather - a relatively mild fall - might have helped somewhat because the strawberries began maturing about a week earlier than usual, he said.

Blueberries, another prime county crop, were not impacted too much.

Grower Alto Straughn said some of his trees are blooming now, though some of the blooms were damaged.

Straughn said he covered some varieties of blueberries with plastic and watered them to preserve warmth. He left other varieties to the elements.

"There was probably 3 to 5 percent damage, but we didn't try to freeze-protect much because it was so cold and there was so little bloom," Straughn said. "They are right on the verge of starting to bloom."

Growers selling at Wednesday's farmers' market in downtown Gainesville said they had not received much damage.

Wilber said damaged yards might need some extra care for the damage and weeds. She added that fungicides can clear up problems such as take-all root rot. Some tropical plants, however, might not come back, Wilber said. Some citrus trees probably were damaged as well.

The deep freeze might give pets and people a reprieve by knocking back the number of fleas and ticks, Wilber said.

The area typically has six to seven generations of chinch bugs a year, and that might be reduced.

Some insects, such as ants, might invade homes to escape the cold, said Eileen Buss, a University of Florida professor of entomology and nematology.

"You could be seeing more ants coming in. Maybe more beetles or even cockroaches. All they are doing is looking for a warm spot," Buss said. "Ants can get in through all kinds of little, bitty cracks."

Contact Cindy Swirko 374-5024 or

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