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Freeze a big blow to local farmers

January's extended freeze devastated local farmers, new estimates show.

Strawberry farmers lost a third of their berries. A Pasco kumquat farmer — the largest in the nation — lost half of his crop. So did many Hillsborough tropical fish farmers. And tomato farmers in south Florida watched all of their mature plants die.

Citrus growers, who lost about 4 percent of their orange crop, also suffered a major setback. Florida Citrus Mutual estimates state growers lost 6 million boxes of oranges in the freeze. That translates to about $32.5 million worth of fruit.

And that's just the impact on the grower.

The pickers and packers on the payroll at Kumquat Growers Inc. in Pasco were severely hurt, said farm manager Greg Gude. He said the farm lost half its crop and farm owner Frank Gude had to lay off about 60 employees.

"Our workers were affected more than anyone else," he said. "Also, they take about $250,000 to $300,0000 that they make into the local economy. They spend it in the stores, they spend it in the gas stations, so all of that is affected."

Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the department estimates Florida lost about $250 million worth of crops. That could rise to $500 million if crops don't rebound in the coming months, he said.

That's not catastrophic to the industry, but some individual farmers were devastated, he said.

One of those farmers was Oak Ridge Fish Hatchery owner David Drawdy. He estimated he lost 70 percent of the fish at his Plant City farm. That translates into about $800,000 in losses, he said.

Employees at the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association's co-op store in Gibsonton said most of their customers lost more than half of their crops.

In Tampa, Sweetwater Organic Community Farm fared better. Farm owner Rick Martinez lost all of his tomato and pepper plants, but he anticipates that possibility every winter.

Some lettuce varieties were burned, but the farm was able to get by, he said. When plants became dormant in the cold, the farm simply handed out smaller portions to customers who pick up produce each week.

"Our members are really good about that. They know what we're up against," Martinez said.

About two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared most of Florida an agriculture disaster area, which makes low-interest loans available to qualifying farmers.

But Florida Strawberry Grower Association president Ted Campbell said that's not very helpful — even to strawberry farmers, who don't have a federal insurance program.

"Everybody's loaned up to the gills now, and allowing someone go further into debt is not a great option," he said.

Most of Florida's strawberry industry is centered around Plant City, and Campbell said he estimates about a third of the crop was wiped out. Still, overall financial damage went further.

Not only did farmers lose profits due to decreased production, they also spent a lot of money on fuel, water and employees' time to protect their crops at night, he said.

"When you combine those two factors, it's been a really ugly year," he said.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Freeze a big blow to local farmers 02/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2010 11:04pm]
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