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Tampa Bay area farms maintain freeze vigil

Jerry Flagle walks a 60-acre strawberry field off Dover Road in east Hillsborough County on Sunday. He was spraying lubricant on all the sprinkler heads in the Dover field to keep them from sticking in the freezing temperatures.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Jerry Flagle walks a 60-acre strawberry field off Dover Road in east Hillsborough County on Sunday. He was spraying lubricant on all the sprinkler heads in the Dover field to keep them from sticking in the freezing temperatures.

Frank Gude spent Sunday morning taking stock of how his kumquat farm near San Antonio fared in the overnight cold assault.

"We had a hard freeze, ain't no doubt about it," he said. "I'm sure we're going to have quite a bit of damage."

He carried a pocketknife to cut open some specimens to determine if slush had invaded kumquats that weren't frozen solid. He was pessimistic but couldn't be certain for days that the freeze had destroyed his entire crop, he said.

"I'm pretty sure it wiped out the existing crop," Gude said. "We probably won't have any more kumquats available, but we don't know that for sure."

While Gude braced for the worst, other farmers around Tampa Bay breathed a sigh of relief early Sunday after their crops appeared to have survived another frigid night. But challenges remained — forecasters predicted the overnight temperatures going into today would be some of the chilliest yet this winter.

Bay News 9 meteorologist Brian McClure expected winds to die down, allowing the cold air to settle on the ground.

"That's when you get the thick frost and the really hard freeze," he said.

A cold spell occurs here about once a decade, McClure said. This one has lasted longer than most: As of Sunday, temperatures at Tampa International Airport had not reached 60 degrees in nine consecutive days. The old record of seven days was set in January 1956.

Miami broke a 40-year record low Saturday night with a temperature of 35 degrees. Around Orlando, people spotted snow flurries, and runners at the start of the Walt Disney World Marathon endured 28-degree weather.

Though Saturday night proved cold in the Tampa Bay area, it could have been worse. Bay News 9's McClure said the wind stayed up most of the night, keeping the atmosphere a little bit warmer.

Local tropical fish farmers, who were preparing for catastrophe, seemed to have suffered few losses, according to Valley Fisheries in Balm.

Same went Sunday for blueberries — "So far, I haven't seen any damage," said Larry Davis of Spring Lake Blueberry Farm in Hernando County — and strawberries.

"So far, so good," Gary Wishnatzki said of the strawberries at Wishnatzki Farms in Plant City.

Strawberry farmers such as Wishnatzki use a constant stream of water to protect their crops with ice when temperatures reach freezing. But in order for the preventive measure to work, sprinklers have to run continuously and wind needs to be at a minimum so sprinkler coverage remains consistent.

As long as the winds stay calm, some Hillsborough County farmers are confident their crops will make it through.

"The only thing that this cold has really done to us is we've lost a couple of weeks of production right in the meat of our season," Wishnatzki said.

The cold snap has slowed the ripening process, pushing back harvesting by at least a week at a time when the state's growers capitalize on the strawberry market. California and Mexico farms produce strawberry crops later in the winter.

There is one silver lining, Wishnatzki said.

Local growers can expect a bumper crop in late February and March because this stretch of cold weather should shock strawberry plants into thinking spring is around the bend, pushing them to throw out a heavy bloom that will turn into berries.

"There should be a bumper crop of berries," Wishnatzki said, "but I wouldn't anticipate a bumper crop for the next couple of weeks."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay area farms maintain freeze vigil 01/10/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 10, 2010 11:18pm]
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