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As berry and fish farmers cope, yet more cold snaps expected for Tampa Bay

Matt Parke helps his uncle Gary Parke cover strawberry plants Monday at ParkeFamily HydroFarms on Tanner Road in Dover. The Parkes were preparing for freezing temperatures this morning.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Matt Parke helps his uncle Gary Parke cover strawberry plants Monday at ParkeFamily HydroFarms on Tanner Road in Dover. The Parkes were preparing for freezing temperatures this morning.

With record low temperatures and overnight freezes likely this week, meteorologists say Tampa Bay will see a streak of cold days similar to last January's chill.

At 38 degrees in Tampa, Monday morning recorded the coldest December temperature in three years, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker.

Daytime highs in the area will continue hovering in the 50s through Wednesday, Linker said — 15 degrees below average.

Tampa may reach freezing temperatures Wednesday morning. The last time that happened in December? The year 2000.

"December looks like it's going to be pretty darn cold," Linker said, predicting one or two more cold snaps by the month's end.

Monday's high of 54 degrees in Tampa was just shy of breaking a 110-year-old record for the chilliest high temperature for the day.

Cloud cover will keep Pinellas County slightly warmer into Wednesday, while northern counties away from the water may encounter a hard freeze with temperatures below 27 degrees for three hours or longer.

The cold weather has farmers watching their crops closely.

"The cold this (Monday) morning, that's good for citrus," said Frank Gude, co-owner of Kumquat Growers in Dade City. A little nip in the air can be good for some ripening fruits, he said. "That doesn't hurt us one bit."

Strawberries, too, will sweeten in mild cold. But when temperatures drop below 30, that's when many farmers' worries grow.

At Fancy Farms in Plant City, Carl Grooms spent Monday morning picking ripe strawberries and checking pumps. He was ready to flood his fields in case of a freeze so the ice would protect blooms and green berries.

"It's slowing the maturity of the berries down quite a bit," Grooms said.

In Brooksville, George Casey's JG Ranch sits in a cold pocket, where temperatures fall a few degrees colder than other parts of town. Having already run water over his strawberry fields twice, Casey will be keeping watch over three thermometers for the next four nights.

"We'll worry every one of them through," he said.

On fish farms, colder water can inflict stress and lower defenses to make fish more susceptible to parasites, said Lithia fish farm owner Art Rawlins, who's also president of the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association.

"It's like if you go out on a cold night and get caught in the rain, you'll catch a cold," Rawlins said. "Stress affects fish also."

There's always a backup plan. While strawberry farmers rely on freezing berries or covering plants with protective frost cloths, Rawlins said fish farmers can tap into warmer aquifer water to blanket the ponds.

Workers at Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg will also be monitoring overnight temperatures.

Built in a sinkhole 10 feet below ground level, the botanical museum is naturally shielded, said supervisor Bill O'Grady. But to maintain historical plants like the royal palms or seasonal plants like the poinsettia tree, heaters will be on hand.

As berry and fish farmers cope, yet more cold snaps expected for Tampa Bay 12/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 7, 2010 5:30pm]
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