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Florida crop loss estimates reach $115 million but likely to increase

Florida farmers have lost at least $115 million to this winter's cold blast — and that doesn't include damage from this week's record-breaking chill, initial reports show.

That's a conservative estimate sure to rise in the coming weeks, said Florida Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Sarah Criser.

The report encompasses freezes this month through Dec. 20 that affected fruits, vegetables, citrus, foliage and aquaculture. Almost 9,000 acres of farmland were deemed a total loss.

The total economic impact, including indirect losses felt by suppliers, truckers and restaurants, likely will exceed $273 million, Criser said.

That comes in addition to the total economic losses felt after January's record-breaking cold snap, which earlier were estimated at $500 million.

So far, peppers, squash, endive, eggplant, cucumbers, sweet corn, cabbage and string beans have suffered the worst damage, the report states. Tomato losses have not been determined.

Strawberries seem to have escaped major harm, but the freeze probably will delay the harvest. Oranges, avocados, celery, lettuce, grapefruit and radishes also appear unscathed.

A more complete loss report is expected early next week.

Gary Parke of Parkesdale Farms said his Dover farm got as low as 19 degrees Monday night. He planned to turn his sprinklers on Tuesday night, too, to cover his strawberries with a protective layer of ice.

"We're playing it by ear," Parke said. "God can do whatever he wants. … I'd just as soon like to stay asleep."

George Casey, who grows blueberries and strawberries southwest of Brooksville, said the temperature at his farm dropped to about 17 degrees overnight Monday and stayed below freezing for several hours.

"What it hurts now was any new blossoms," Casey said.

He said he won't know the damage to his strawberries for three to five days. His blueberries won't be affected because they won't blossom for another couple of months.

Art Rawlins of the Rawlins Tropical Fish farm in Lithia already lost most of his stock after this month's first cold blast.

"What was left I saw roll over in the ponds this morning," Rawlins said. "It's looking pretty grim."

This is the first year Rawlins recalls having two stretches of hard freezes the same year — first January, now December.

"What we'll do about it as an industry, I don't know," he said. "The distributors up north have got to have fish in their tanks, so they'll just ship from Asia. It'll be very difficult to get them back."

Through Monday, Tampa and St. Petersburg recorded the coldest starts to December ever.

Tampa had an average of 53 degrees, besting the previous record of 54.1 set in 1910. St. Petersburg's average of 56.2 beat a record of 56.9 set in 1935.

The cold snap should finally fade today, with temperatures expected to be in the 60s, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker. The rest of the week should be in the 70s.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Florida crop loss estimates reach $115 million but likely to increase 12/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 29, 2010 6:29am]

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