Cold temps continue to plague Florida; imperiling fish, fruit and veggies

By Tamara Lush, AP
Monday, January 11, 2010

Cold imperils Florida’s fish, fruit and veggies

FROSTPROOF, Fla. — Here’s something you don’t often see in this town at the heart of the state’s $9 billion citrus industry: a sign at the public library that says, “ICE! On sidewalk. Be careful!”

Growers were scrambling Monday to assess damage and pick as many oranges as possible from thousands of acres of citrus groves. Trucks filled with fruit rumbled through the center of town all day as their drivers rushed them to juice plants.

Freezing temperatures that swept in on an Arctic front from Canada have been plaguing the state for a week, with several areas approaching or breaking records on Monday.

The cold is extremely tough on the state’s fruit and vegetable growers, with crops such as citrus trees and sugar cane suffering damage when exposed to temperatures below 28 degrees for more than 4 hours. It was below 28 degrees more than 8 hours overnight in the agriculture-dominated area around Lake Okeechobee.

“Temperatures have been ridiculous cold for South Florida,” said Eric Hopkins, vice president of Hundley Farms Inc. in Belle Glade on the lake’s southern edge. He estimated his farm would lose about $750,000 in green beans and sweet corn because of the cold.

“We survived a couple of the nights, but this weekend sort of finished us off as far as the sweet corn and green beans go,” he added.

Overall crop damage tallies won’t be available for days or weeks, agricultural officials said. But the state Department of Agriculture said there has been “significant crop damage” throughout the state, from tropical fish farms near Tampa to the ferns grown in Volusia for filler in Valentine’s Day bouquets. Strawberries were also affected.

The state’s largest citrus grower’s group has been receiving reports of frozen fruit and damage to trees’ leaves and branches, but it’s not clear yet if those trees have suffered long-term damage. Frozen fruit must be rushed to a processing plant, or the flavor could be ruined.

Complicating efforts to assess the damage is “the sheer number of cold days we had in a row. I can’t remember anything like it,” said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual.

The state’s last “impact freeze” — a freeze so severe that it annihilates entire citrus groves around the state, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage — happened in 1989. It was only the fifth since 1835. It will take at least a month to determine whether this year’s cold snap will be classified as another, Citrus Mutual spokesman Andrew Meadows said.

U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, said damage to other fruits and veggies varied throughout the state. Tropical fish, fern and kumquat farmers were hit especially hard, as were certain tomato, cucumber, eggplant and bean crops in the southern part of the state.

Putnam said he is asking the USDA to quickly finish a crop damage assessment so the federal government can expedite a disaster declaration, which would help farmers.

“It’s my view that there will be substantial losses,” he said.

Landscape nurseries also suffered the ill-effects of the cold sweep. Turner Tree and Landscape of Bradenton estimated that it lost a quarter million trees worth $900,000.

The cold approached or surpassed records around the state Monday. The National Weather Service reported 36 degrees at the Miami airport, beating an 82-year-old record of 37 degrees. It dipped to 42 degrees in Key West, one degree off the record and the second-coldest reading since 1873.

Record-tying lows of 29 were observed in Orlando, and Tampa’s 25-degree weather beat its old record of 27. South Florida is usually around 68 degrees this time of year.

By midmorning, Florida Power and Light had about 14,000 homes without power and 1,300 restoration workers in the field.

FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski said Sunday and Monday set successive records for consumer electricity demand. Tampa Electric customers also set a new, all-time peak-demand record for electricity usage on Monday morning.

Homeowners in north Florida and the Panhandle also were dealing with an unfamiliar problem: frozen pipes. It was 14 degrees Monday morning in Tallahassee, breaking the record of 15 set in 1982.

Barry Atkinson, the owner of Destin Plumbing in Destin, said he can’t keep up with emergency calls from the restaurants, condominiums and other businesses. Area plumbing suppliers have sold out of many of the parts needed to repair the broken pipes.

Atkinson said pipes on outdoor walls in many Panhandle homes are not insulated because of the warm climate.

“It’s the exposed pipes under homes or outside that freeze quickly,” he said.

Associated Press writers Travis Reed in Miami, Brian Skoloff in West Palm Beach and Melissa Nelson in Pensacola contributed to this report.

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