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Central Florida farmers assessing freeze damage

Some farmers think they dodged a bullet during this week's overnight freezing temperatures, but others fear a long-term threat to crops and groves.

"We had to stress our plants three nights in a row by icing them down," said Brooksville blueberry farmer George Casey. Like most farmers, Casey used sprinklers to ice the berries and protect them from the cold.

Casey estimates that he and other blueberry farmers in Hernando County each lost about 5 percent of their crops, which were more vulnerable to the cold because they were just starting to bloom.

But their main concern, he said, is long-term damage to the wood and roots from a disease or fungus resulting from three nights of watering.

"We dumped thousands and thousands of gallons of water on that field," he said. "Those roots aren't used to being that heavy. When the ice melted, it flooded the field."

Damage to local crops was not believed to be substantial, but growers and agriculture experts said it would be sometime next week before the full extent of any damage could be assessed.

Some citrus farmers were worried after an initial inspection of their groves turned up brown leaves and ice inside the fruit.

U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, will be at Lou Ross Citrus in Balm in south Hillsborough County Monday when officials announce a statewide damage assessment.

Depending on the damage, Putnam is prepared to ask President Obama and congressional leaders for disaster relief for Florida's farmers, said Keith Rupp, a Putnam spokesman.

"We do know we have damage," said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an association of growers. "We just don't know how much at this point."

Strawberry growers were a bit more optimistic on Friday.

"The damage is very minimal," said Gary Wishnatzki of Plant City's Wishnatzki Farms, a grower and sales agent representing 1,200 acres of strawberry fields in Central Florida.

All of the farmers were relieved about the weekend's forecast of highs in the 70s and lows in the upper 30s and 40s.

"I've been up three days," Casey, the Brooksville blueberry farmer, said Friday afternoon. "I'm tired."

Times staff writer Drew Harwell contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

Central Florida farmers assessing freeze damage 01/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 24, 2009 12:02am]
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