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Farmers at war with winds that foil their crop-protection techniques

Jamie Lopez Silva searches for ripe strawberries Monday on CK Farms in Dover as strawberry growers rushed their workers into the fields to pick as many berries as possible before high winds and an accompanying freeze hits the area at night this week.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Jamie Lopez Silva searches for ripe strawberries Monday on CK Farms in Dover as strawberry growers rushed their workers into the fields to pick as many berries as possible before high winds and an accompanying freeze hits the area at night this week.

DOVER — At church last weekend, people asked Gary Parke what they should pray for.

Pray for cloud cover, the strawberry farmer told them, to keep the cold away from crops.

"We are on edge," said Parke, co-owner of Parkesdale Farms in eastern Hillsborough, "like the soldier that prepares for war and hopes for peace."

With 10 to 15 mph winds predicted along with temperatures dropping into the 20s, farmers are at war with the winds today.

When temperatures go below freezing, strawberry and citrus farmers pump groundwater over crops to keep plants at 32 degrees as water freezes into an icy, protective layer.

But this strategy works only with constant sprinkling — which isn't possible if the wind scatters the water.

Monday night was expected to be "one of those real scary nights," said Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wishnatzki Farms in Plant City and the Wish Farms strawberry brand. "This could be one of our worst-case scenarios."

If farmers can't coat the plants evenly with water, they'll see black streaks in the fields where patches of plants have died. Or, the winds, if too strong, will cause plants to be pelted with ice when the water freezes in mid-air.

On Monday night, Wishnatzki said his managers considered not even attempting to water some of the younger strawberries.

"It's such a fine line between saving your fruit and damaging your plants," he said.

Losing blooms will set farmers back four to five weeks, Wishnatzki said. But damaging plants can affect production through March.

And harvests already have been low this year, farmers say, with last week's two-day freeze slowing fruits from ripening.

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency Monday, temporarily lifting some transportation restrictions and allowing farmers to save some crops by harvesting as much as they can before the hard freeze.

Agricultural production nets $1.5 billion each year for Hillsborough County, according to the county's office of agriculture industry development.

It's early enough for strawberries to rebound from December freezes, farmers say.

But for tropical fish farmer Art Rawlins in Lithia, the outlook seems bleaker.

Last week's two cold nights damaged both covered and uncovered ponds. Even though he pumps warmer well water over the ponds, there's little protection in this kind of cold.

This week, he didn't ship any feeder guppies — in contrast to his usual weekly shipment of 125 boxes, each holding 1,000 fish.

"It's not looking good," said Rawlins, president of the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association.

During January's streak of cold days, he lost about 75 percent of his fish. He had to dip into reserves to pay his employees.

And this year?

"Here we go again," Rawlins said. "You work, work, work, work, work, and then there it goes."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

>>fast facts

Water managers to set pumping rules

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, will vote today on regulations to restrict amounts of water farmers can draw from aquifers around Dover and Plant City. The meeting is at 9 a.m. at the district headquarters, 2379 Broad St., Brooksville.

Farmers' groundwater pumping during cold days in January resulted in hundreds of dry wells and dozens of sinkholes. After last week's two overnight freezes, there were six reports of dry wells, said Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix.

The district advises Dover and Plant City residents to turn off well pumps at night to avoid burnouts if levels drop. For information, go to www.swfwmd.state.fl.us.

Farmers at war with winds that foil their crop-protection techniques 12/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 13, 2010 10:34pm]

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