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Bone-chilling cold, but only a little damage to Hernando County crops

Fruit and nursery growers had no quibble with Cooperative Extension director Stacy Strickland's assessment of the weather early Tuesday as he toured properties in Hernando County.

"It looks like it got pretty doggone cold," Strickland observed.

Cold indeed. Bone-chilling, in fact.

The official low temperature recorded by the National Weather Service at the Hernando County Airport, south of Brooksville, was 15 degrees early Tuesday morning — 4 degrees lower than the 19 recorded on the morning of Dec. 15. The low of 29 recorded at Chinsegut Hill, north of Brooksville, was 2 degrees higher than the record of 27, set in 1902 and 1894.

Crop damage appeared minimal, however, thanks in many cases to growers taking cold precautions.

"All in all, it was pretty good," Strickland said.

Joan Casey, who grows small fruits with her husband, George, and son, Jeff, southwest of Brooksville, said early Tuesday, "We're protecting strawberries at this time."

Row covers were unfurled over 1,000 plants, and sprinklers were activated Monday evening, she reported. The thermometer dipped to 17 degrees during the night, she said.

"Blueberries, at this time, are still tight," Casey said, referring to fruit buds that will become more susceptible to cold once they begin to open.

Dan Ebbecke, with 35,000 blueberry plants at Masaryktown, recorded a low temperature of 17 degrees just before 8 a.m.

"On the plus side," he said, concurring with Casey, "the blueberries are still tight right now."

However, Ebbecke had experimented with two newly developed blueberry strains — very early producers — that had broken bud and are probably a total loss, he said.

While those amounted to just 250 plants, "I won't plant any more," he said.

Citrus growers voiced some concerns Tuesday.

Louis Neuhoffer, who manages groves for owners in Hernando and Pasco counties, said, "We've got some ice in the fruit. There'll be some juice loss; that's for sure. We'll have some maturity problems."

While he oversees groves as far south as Dade City, Neuhoffer said, "Up around Spring Lake is where I worry about (cold) the most."

He reported 24 degrees in Spring Lake overnight. He fought the cold temperatures with microspray water beneath the tree canopies, which raised the air temperature in the orchard.

At Boyett's Grove, also in Spring Lake but at a higher elevation, Kathy Oleson said: "We had some frost, but it wasn't anything that hurt the fruit. We're warmer; that's why we're up here on this whole Spring Lake shelf."

Nonetheless, a family member early Tuesday morning picked tangerines and honeybells, two varieties that are among the most sensitive to cold.

Oleson, who owns the citrus operation with her husband, Jim, said only about a third of the total crop has been picked this season. The mid- and late-season citrus remains on the trees.

"We've only had October, November and December into the season," she pointed out, "and it will go to May or June."

Wholesale nursery grower Rick Capote has more control over the calendar. The owner of the 31-acre Aventura Nursery & Landscape, in Brooksville and Spring Hill, said he moves out tropical trees with sales during September through November. Anything left over he carts into heated greenhouses, and doesn't restock the tropicals until February or March.

Of his own plantings, Capote said: "We try to grow cold-tolerant material."

Capote incurred a minor problem overnight when the mercury fell to 19 degrees at his site: a frozen, then broken, above-ground water spigot.

At least one Spring Hill business and several residents in the Royal Highlands area in northwest Hernando awoke Tuesday to frozen pipes, said Scott Dennick, Weeki Wachee branch manager for Billy the Sunshine Plumber.

"We're in the cold zone," Dennick said, "20 degrees colder than St. Pete."

And pipes connected to some homes in Hernando aren't insulated for the freezing temperatures, he said.

Because the overnight cold was forecast in advance, and Hernando residents experienced such problems during last January's cold snap, Dennick said many have learned that moving water is less likely to freeze.

"People are getting a little smarter and letting a little water run," he said.

The low temperature this morning was expected to be about 20 degrees in Hernando. Nighttime lows the rest of the week are not expected to dip below freezing, and daytime highs are forecast to reach the 70s by Thursday.

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

Bone-chilling cold, but only a little damage to Hernando County crops 12/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 28, 2010 10:22pm]
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