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Fla. growers see one freeze, second coming

Freezing temperatures overnight appeared to have done only limited damage to Florida's winter citrus crops, but temperatures Thursday night were expected to again drop below freezing.
Chilly Florida Weather
Farm worker Edgar Rousey looks at the oranges salvaged on John Steffy's farm near Indiantown, Fla. early Thursday as the sprinkler system washes away the ice from tomato plants on the farm. Steffy reported his tomato and orange crops have been lost this year. J Pat Carter / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Citrus growers and vegetable growers appeared Thursday to have weathered the statewide freeze better than expected, but tomato growers took a hit as temperatures stayed below freezing long enough to cause damage to some of those crops.

It will take days for growers to know the extent of the damage. But temperatures in the dense tomato-growing regions of Immokalee, in southwest Florida, and the Palmetto-Ruskin area near Tampa were "cold enough long enough that there will be pockets of damage to those crops," said Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Florida is the top producer of fresh tomatoes in the nation.

The mercury was expected to dip Thursday night into the low 20s for the second night in a row in northern Florida, and a record low was possible for the Jacksonville area. Overnight freeze warnings were issued for the northern half of the state.

"This has been one of the coldest winters that we've had in Florida in several years," state meteorologist Ben Nelson said in a message broadcast to Floridians on YouTube.

Temperatures in Lake Okeechobee, where large number of vegetable crops are grown, dipped below freezing but wind helped keep frost off the crops, Lockridge said.

Florida's citrus growers dodged a bullet since temperatures in the major citrus growing regions didn't stay at 28 degrees for more than four hours — the breaking point when damage begins. Growers in the nation's No. 1 citrus-producing state are still assessing damage from a freeze last month.

"There will probably be spot damage here and there but in terms of large-scale problems, we came through OK," Michael Sparks, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest citrus grower's group, said in a statement.

Most of the state's strawberry growers also got by relatively unscathed by using their irrigation system to create a protective layer of ice around the fruit, said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. That keeps the fruit around 32 degrees, above the threshold where serious damage can occur.

"It didn't get cold enough to do serious harm," Campbell said. "In fact, it's making the flavor even sweeter than ever ... It increases the sugar in the plant."

Grower John Steffy of Indiantown near Lake Okeechobee wasn't so lucky. He said he lost his tomato crop and won't know until he is done surveying Friday whether his strawberries will survive.

"It's like working for a year and getting no pay," Steffy said.

More on: Florida's citrus crops