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Hernando County growers shiver and hope for warmer weather

BROOKSVILLE — Stacy Strickland was speaking for just about everyone in Hernando County. "I'm just ready for winter to be over," he declared.

As the Hernando County Extension director, he has seen and heard about the local effects of the unusually low temperatures that have clamped down over Florida since January.

Local vegetable and fruit growers have been lying awake for many nights, doing what they can to protect their valuable plants, and hoping alongside coping.

Strickland monitors local crops and takes reports and questions from small-farm owners. Reading from a weather forecast centered on Spring Lake, where most of the county's horticultural produce is grown, Strickland noted temperatures are expected to bottom out at 30 degrees tonight.

So far, fruit and vegetable losses haven't reached substantial levels, reported Laura Langford, executive director of the regional Farm Service Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If an agricultural disaster is declared, it is the FSA that writes relief checks.

Strawberries and citrus have taken hits, but Langford said she can't yet calculate a crop percentage or dollar loss.

While local produce growers try to assess the damage, they contemplate their coming harvests with fingers crossed.

"I can't worry about what happened in the past. Now's the time to think ahead to spring," said Joann Beasley of Beasley Farms, southeast of Brooksville. "We lost a lot, as all farmers. This (weather) is crazy," said Beasley, whose family enterprise has tilled soil here since the 1960s.

She has been assessing temperatures not just of the air but of the soil, which is still too cold to germinate seeds adequately.

"Normally, it's about time by the end of February, the first of March, to start spring crops, beans and squashes. Those are usually the first two I start with," Beasley said. "I'm not sure (the cold) is over with, so I'm holding off. If (the seeds germinate) then their little heads can freeze off."

As for the cold-hardy crops of the winter season, Beasley said the farm's romaine lettuce was a loss, mustard greens and kale didn't grow well, and collard greens and broccoli suffered unappealing color change. But regular consumers of the latter two know, Beasley said, that the cold has increased their flavor.

Blueberry grower Daniel Ebbecke of Masaryktown is concerned about the period leading up to April 1, when blossoms and forming berries are at their most weather vulnerable.

Bushes remained dormant during the January-February freezes, he said, so they were not affected. "Not yet," he said when asked about damage. "Blueberries are hanging in there."

His vigilance is constant. To monitor his crop's blow with the weather, two weeks ago Ebbecke canceled a trip to Tucson, Ariz., for a meeting of the North American Blueberry Council, to which he'd been elected the Southeastern representative.

Similarly, last weekend he canceled reservations for a tour of Mexican organic blueberry farms. Much as he aims to "roam around and do this better," Ebbecke's goal now is to care for his own budding crop.

"Every four days we have a new (weather) front rolling through," he lamented, his eye on an aerial irrigation system geared to spray his bushes with water.

Citrus seems to be out of the woods. "It's coming back and starting to blossom," said Kathy Oleson of the county's largest commercial citrus endeavor, Boyett's Grove in Spring Lake.

While kumquats and temple oranges suffered "a little loss," she reported, "Valencias (the staple juice orange variety) and honey tangerines and grapefruit are good. The earlier varieties were pretty much done anyway."

Oleson added, "It's the longest cold I can ever remember, the most days of cold I can ever remember. It's made the blossoms late. They're coming, but they're just late."

Beth Gray can be reached at graybethn@earthlink.net

Hernando County growers shiver and hope for warmer weather 03/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 4, 2010 7:45pm]
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