Jan 23, 2009
Frigid Temperatures Threaten Florida Crops

Agricultural producers as far south as Lake Okeechobee are assessing crop damage caused by the frigid temperatures of two recent nights. Seventy million citrus trees and tens of thousands of acres of fresh fruits and vegetables were in regions where temperatures remained below 30 degrees for several hours, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said that while initial reports are coming in, the extent of the damage will not be known for several days. In addition to citrus, other crops at risk include strawberries, blueberries, snap beans, celery, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, endive/escarole, peppers, radishes and squash, tropical fish and horticulture.

“Many growers and producers implemented precautionary measures such as running irrigation pumps to help insulate some crops from sub-freezing temperatures,” Bronson said. “This is peak harvest season for many Florida crops, so damage at this time could have significant consequences stretching far outside Florida’s borders. Most of the United States’ domestic supply of fresh produce comes from Florida during the winter months.”

Temperatures dipped into the upper teens in parts of northern Florida, while temperatures in the 20s were seen as far south as Collier, Glades and Charlotte counties.

While the entire citrus belt experienced very cold temperatures and growers are reporting damage, citrus industry officials say that the Indian River region, which produces the bulk of Florida’s fresh fruit market, fared relatively well. They also report that the current inventory of juice oranges is high, which will help minimize that market’s losses due to freeze damage. Strawberry and blueberry industry officials say that early assessments suggest that crop damage is limited. Sugar cane industry officials said they are fortunate that the harvest is two-thirds complete, since frost can burn young cane plants back to the ground and cause mature canes to stop producing sucrose.

A week ahead of the cold front, Bronson requested an Emergency Order through the Governor’s Office to ease highway restrictions on weight, height and width for vehicles used to transport harvested crops to market. Bronson’s action has enabled growers and producers to speed up their harvest and transport a larger portion of their crops ahead of the arctic blast, thereby helping reduce the potential for widespread freeze damage.

The Emergency Order went into effect on Jan. 14 and was to remain in effect for 14 days. Bronson’s office has requested that the Governor’s Office extend the order for an additional 14 days to further facilitate the speedy transport of crops and help mitigate financial loss, and is awaiting approval of the request.

Florida’s more than 40,000 farmers grow more than 280 commercial crops, which furnish the nation with a dependable and safe supply of food and provide Florida with a stable economic base. Florida farmers annually produce more than 35 billion pounds of food and more than 1.5 million tons of livestock feed. Florida is the nation’s ninth agricultural state overall, ranking first in citrus production and second in the production of vegetables and horticulture products.

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