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Blueberries, strawberries, citrus survive Hernando's deep freeze

Whenever arctic-like weather blows southward into Central Florida, Hernando County's produce growers know they won't get much sleep.

So when temperatures plummeted into the teens Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, JG Ranch owners George and Joan Casey put their coffee pot on so they could monitor their irrigation system throughout the night to protect the delicate strawberry and blueberry crops they grow on their U-pick farm south of Brooksville.

"We're used to it," George Casey said Wednesday morning. "If it's one or two nights, it's easy to handle. We're hoping this won't last too long."

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature fell to 19 degrees at the Hernando County Airport just before sunup Wednesday. Spring Hill's official low was 23.

Casey said that such low temperatures aren't bad for his crops as long as they rebound quickly. In fact, he said, the cold snap after the milder-than-normal December could actually benefit his crops by slowing their growth.

"The warm temperatures lately really sped things up," Casey said. "That hasn't been the best thing for farmers putting their fruit on the market. There's a lot of it out there right now, and prices have dropped."

Stacy Strickland of the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service said he was concerned that a sudden freeze could damage the county's citrus crop. But a drive around to groves in eastern Hernando County on Wednesday alleviated most of those concerns, he said.

"I think we came through in pretty good shape," Strickland said. "Of course, it's too early to determine the exact extent of any damage. That could take a few days."

In anticipation of the cold snap, Jericho Roads Ministries opened its men's shelter on Mondon Hill Road in Brooksville to homeless individuals who lacked a heated place to sleep. However, Pastor Fred Parker said the facility had only two extra visitors overnight.

Parker said that at least part of the reluctance of people to come in is due to the shelter's rigid rules, and the fact that most homeless people have become adept at finding comfort for the night.

"If they live in the woods, they're generally better able to take care of themselves, no matter how cold it gets," Parker said.

But the same isn't true for pets. At the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, volunteers spent Tuesday afternoon spreading blankets and cranking up the heat in the kennels that house the facility's dog and cat populations.

"We have a lot of comfort measures that we employ for them," said volunteer coordinator Cindy Dietrich. "We have elevated beds in both the cat and dog kennels, and the community has donated a lot of blankets and comforters. That's a blessing to have."

According to the National Weather Service, temperatures this morning were expected to dip into the mid 20s, with areas of frost. A gradual warming trend will then return temperatures to normal levels by the weekend — 70s during the day and around 50 at night.

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@tampabaytimes.com.

Blueberries, strawberries, citrus survive Hernando's deep freeze 01/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 8:04pm]
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