Cold weather may have helped, more than hurt, farmers

A freeze that threatened widespread crop damage may have ended up being exactly what Florida farmers needed most.

Thanks largely to the ninth-warmest December on record, strawberry plants are producing more fruit, and faster. Industry wide, farmers are reeling in record hauls.

That's fine except for one thing: All that supply is driving down prices.

While that's good for the consumer, it means farmers are forced to sell at very low prices that promise little, if any, profit.

Wednesday's low and freezing or near freezing temperatures Thursday could help by slowing plant growth, reducing the supply and increasing the price.

"There's no doubt about it," said Joe Gude, the owner of Brandon Farms, a strawberry farm. "We definitely needed some cool weather to cool this thing down."

Gude said the weather will slow the yield, but it also has another benefit. Lower temperatures help make sweeter berries.

"We hope it's going to be a good thing and spread the production out a little further," said Carl Grooms of Fancy Farms in Plant City.

George Casey, who owns a farm on Wiscon Road, southwest of Brooksville, began icing his crop of strawberries and blueberries around 10 p.m. Tuesday, he said.

His farm was colder for longer than most, but he sees the freeze as a good thing. He said he sees a big correction in the market coming.

"Right now the market's saturated," he said.

He said last year at this time he was selling a flat of strawberries, eight, 1-pound containers, for about $22 or $24. This year it's down to $8.80.

"A good price is in the teens," said Ted Campbell, the executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. "Under 10 is a very difficult price for them."

Casey said the freeze is going to be good, but may have come too late and may impact farmer's ability to plant next season.

"The financial impact is both going to be on the loss and next year's crop," he said.

Of course, there's a very fine line. Too much cold is devastating.

"Last night, if I had not of watered, I could have lost a million or a million-and-a-half," said Grooms, noting that he doesn't anticipate any losses though it's still too early to tell

The kill point for strawberries and their plants is 28 degrees, said Campbell. But when farmers spray water, which turns into ice on plants, it keeps fruit above that damaging temperature as long as the water is constantly changing to ice.

Some parts of the Tampa Bay area saw temperatures fall below freezing for several hours early Wednesday. Brooksville recorded the lowest temperatures in the region at 18 degrees, while parts of eastern Hillsborough saw temperatures hit the mid 20s.

Largely, farmers said, temperatures didn't get low enough for long enough to do major damage and they said they weren't expecting heavy loses.

"This is minimal," said Gude. "This won't be a big deal for us."

Likewise, the tropical fish industry was hopeful it escaped the freeze unscathed.

"At this point in time, I'm not anticipating any problems," said Art Rawlins of the Rawlins Tropical Fish farm in Lithia. "Usually most of the time, our farm can sustain one or two nights with all the cold weather protection"

The weather did cause some problems for Tampa Bay residents trying to keep their homes warm.

At least two cold-related fires broke out Wednesday. In one, the fire displaced two St. Petersburg families when their apartment unit heater caught fire, officials said. The fire broke out at 8322 Dr. Martin Luther King St. N just after midnight.

Flames shot through the roof of the apartment before firefighters got the fire under control, said St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue spokesman Lt. Joel Granata.

Both the apartment where the fire originated and an adjacent unit were damaged by the blaze, suffering "considerable smoke and water damage," Granata said.

Another heater-related fire broke out at about 1 a.m. Wednesday when the central heating fan malfunctioned at a condominium, 5821 Eighth Ave. N, officials said. No one was hurt in the incident, which was classified as an electrical fire.

Times reporter Marissa Lang contributed to this report. Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

A warming trend should begin today, with high temperatures climbing into the mid-60s under mostly sunny skies.

Cold weather may have helped, more than hurt, farmers 01/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 8:25pm]

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