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Bay area farmers brace for the worst as crop damage mounts; prices expected to rise

As the sun rose and icicles melted across Tampa Bay on Monday, weary farmers trekked through their fields searching for signs of life.

From Bradenton to Brooksville, they found widespread damage of varying amounts among thousands of acres of strawberries, oranges, kumquats and tropical fish.

Though industry analysts said it will take weeks to determine the extent of harm, there's little doubt that nine straight days of record-breaking cold weather will affect prices at the grocery store.

Despite warmer weather forecast for later this week, tired farmers took afternoon naps Monday in anticipation of one more freeze expected early today.

Forecasts called for a low of 19 degrees in Brooksville, 30 in Tampa and 26 in Wesley Chapel, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Diane Kacmarik, with frost everywhere except near the coast.

After inspecting plants Monday, local strawberry farmers reported minimal damage but remained wary of the cold weather on the way.

"You're optimistic when you've got a lot of fruit left," said Carl Grooms, who owns Fancy Farms in Plant City. "But I'm hesitant to go out and check, especially when there's another night on the way."

Considering the duration of the freeze and all the things that could go wrong, Joe Gude, who runs Brandon Farms in Dover, was surprised to see most of his berries looking good Monday.

He has spent countless hours over the past week monitoring his 200-acre farm and checking for water pressure problems.

On Monday morning, Tampa's low was a record-setting 25 degrees, and St. Petersburg was 33 degrees. Brooksville was at 14 degrees.

During freezing weather, farmers spray their crops with water to create a protective layer of ice, which gives off energy as it freezes and warms the fruit. But too many days of such a practice will take its toll, Gude said.

It's still too soon to judge this freeze's total industry impact, said Ted Campbell, director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. "What was preventable, we've pretty much prevented so far," he said. "Hopefully we've dodged a big bullet, but it's been very hard."

The freeze killed hundreds of thousands of fish in David Drawdy's ponds at the Oakridge Fish Hatchery in Plant City. In 30 years of farming fish, Drawdy said he had never taken a hit like this.

"They just froze," he said. "It looks like it's industry wide. It was just too cold for too long."

While he, too, won't know for sure the exact extent of his losses until it warms up, Drawdy anticipated that he would lose several hundred thousand dollars.

The freeze also wiped out Frank Gude's kumquat crop near San Antonio.

"The only kumquats we have are what's in the cooler," Gude said Monday morning, noting he has about 220 bushels safely inside. "The rest of them are not going to be salvageable."

The trees appear to be okay, he said, but the fruit all froze. That means Kumquat Growers Inc., the nation's largest producer and shipper of the tiny, tangy citrus, is packing it up for the season. Gude has already laid off 40 pickers and stopped selling to wholesalers.

Andrew Meadows, spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, said the industry was hit especially hard on Monday, notably down the west side of the state, including Pasco County, western Polk and eastern Hillsborough.

Like the strawberry crop, it will be a while before the extent of the damage is known.

"There is definitely some frozen fruit, from slushy to solid throughout," Meadows said. "We're in a delicate spot."

The real worry is that trees or roots were damaged by the frost. That won't be clear for at least a couple of weeks, Meadows said.

Grocery stores also await word on crop damages to determine how the weather might affect produce prices. Both Sweetbay and Publix said they were in contact with suppliers and growers, and should know later this week.

Shoppers can most likely expect higher prices for strawberries and oranges, said Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten.

"We're getting word that (oranges have) been impacted the greatest at this time," she said. "So there might be price adjustments as early as Thursday for oranges and orange juice."

Times staff writers Beth N. Gray, Bridget Grumet, Marlene Sokol and Helen Anne Travis contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (813) 661-2454.

Bay area farmers brace for the worst as crop damage mounts; prices expected to rise 01/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 10:06am]
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