Bay area freezes overnight; berry farmers crank the sprinklers

The cold weather lingering around Tampa Bay dipped to freezing temperatures overnight, prompting some strawberry farmers to turn on the sprinklers.

But unlike the extended chill that wreaked havoc on roads, wells and crops in January, meteorologists expect this cold blast to be short, and farmers predicted they'd make it through just fine.

Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties were under a freeze warning until 8 a.m. Friday.

St. Petersburg and Tampa residents awoke to temperatures in the upper 30s, but parts north and east of the bay were freezing. Brandon was at 32 degrees, and Wesley Chapel was at 31. Brooksville reported a low of 24.

The chill doesn't hurt the month's chances of joining the ranks of the coldest Februaries on record, said Bay News 9 meteorologist Juli Marquez. January was already dubbed the sixth coldest.

Running sprinklers for one or two nights during a freeze is standard practice for farmers to create a protective layer of ice on berries.

Nearly two weeks of nightly sprinkling last month sapped enough groundwater to trigger sinkholes and damage residential wells around east Hillsborough farms. But strawberry farmer Joe Gude, owner of Brandon Farms, said this recent chill shouldn't have the same destructive consequences.

Gude said this was just the second time he has had to water his crops in the past two weeks.

"It's the five-night freezes, like we had in January, that become big problems," he said. "This is just business as usual. Obviously we don't like to have to do it."

Another berry grower, Carl Grooms, who owns Fancy Farms in Plant City, turned on his sprinklers around 2 a.m. Friday. He said he wouldn't turn them off until the temperature climbed to at least 34 degrees.

It had about 7 degrees to go by 6:30 a.m., he said.

"It's what you gotta do," he said.

Grooms thinks he'll have plenty of berries for the city's Strawberry Festival, which starts March 4.

"Everything looks okay," he said, but he wouldn't mind a little sunshine.

In Brooksville, farmers started showering their plants a few hours sooner as the cold settled in.

George and Joan Casey, who run a blueberry and strawberry farm on Wiscon Road, set the sprinklers on their plants at 10 p.m. Thursday and monitored them every two hours. By morning, the blueberries were covered in ice — a good thing, Joan Casey said.

"You want it to ice because it keeps that bud," she said.

Friday afternoon temperatures were expected to reach the upper 50s and low 60s, Marquez said. Low winds would also help make the day more bearable.

"At least it will feel a little more comfortable for some of us," she said.

Friday night should be chilly again, though not as cold as Thursday. Temperatures could drop to the upper 30s and low 40s.

There are no freeze watches this weekend, according to the National Weather Service.

But there is an increased chance of rain Saturday. Marquez said showers will likely start in the morning and pick up through the afternoon.

Sunday is supposed to be dry, with temperatures around the 60s.

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Bay area freezes overnight; berry farmers crank the sprinklers 02/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 12:02pm]

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