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Farmers escape icy blast with few losses — so far

Shad Simmons of E.W. Simmons Farms in Dover measures the temperature on his family strawberry farm. Simmons turned on the sprinklers at 12:30 a.m. to protect the crop.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Shad Simmons of E.W. Simmons Farms in Dover measures the temperature on his family strawberry farm. Simmons turned on the sprinklers at 12:30 a.m. to protect the crop.

Florida farmers were relieved Tuesday that the cold was not catastrophic but remained worried about what they might find this morning.

Overnight temperatures were expected to dip to as low as 19 degrees in Citrus County, to the mid 20s in Pasco and Hills­borough counties and to 27 in northern Pinellas, putting plants and fields in possible peril. St. Petersburg is expected to be 37, which would tie the record low for that date.

Fruit and vegetable farmers said they were mostly spared Tuesday by the strong winds that kept frost from settling on plants.

"Looks like we did well," said strawberry farmer Gary Parke of Parkesdale Farms in Plant City. "Now we're just buttoning up and getting ready to do it again."

Lisa Lochridge of the Florida Fruits and Vegetables Association said most farmers around the state felt fortunate. With the exception of a little freeze damage to sweet corn, green beans, tomatoes and peppers in southwest Florida, most of the state's farms reported that it wasn't as bad as they feared.

But they weren't in the clear just yet. Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay said extremely dry air and less wind were expected Tuesday night and this morning, allowing colder conditions.

Lochridge said the cold snaps so far this season have not been as damaging as the longer stretches last January. The Tampa Bay area is expected to warm slightly this afternoon, and by Friday highs will reach the 70s again.

But extreme lows so early in the season have produced widespread concern.

Art Rawlins, owner of Rawlins Tropical fish farm in Lithia, said he expects another bad year for his fishery. Some of his fish already have died, and many more are lethargic — a prelude to dying, he said.

He said his pond temperatures have dropped to 58 degrees, just three degrees over the critical level. Rawlins is running well water into the ponds and covering them with greenhouses to warm the water.

But he's not hopeful.

"I personally feel like it's going to be as bad as it was in January of this year," he said. Last winter he lost about 75 percent of his fish, about $450,000 in losses.

Tampa Bay power companies saw an increase in energy demand Monday night and Tuesday morning, but nothing close to January's record demand.

Officials from Tampa Electric and Progress Energy said they don't expect any problems meeting customers' energy demands.

Rick Morera, a spokesman for Tampa Electric, said the power company expects to see a similar jump in demand Tuesday night and this morning before temperatures rise later in the week.

The water pumping by farmers in the Dover and Plant City area has dropped some aquifer levels by about 30 feet, according to officials. But that's not even close to the catastrophic drop during January's lengthy cold snap.

During that record 11-day cold spell, farmers pumped nearly 1 billion gallons of water a day out of the aquifer, causing 85 reported sinkholes in the region and about 700 complaints of dried-up or damaged residential wells. Aquifer levels dropped as much as 60 feet.

So far this winter there have been four complaints about wells affected by the pumping.

Along with the crops, fish and power and water companies, humans are also hoping for a break.

In Pinellas County, which has had the highest temperatures in the Tampa Bay area, cold weather shelters have been at near capacity.

Pinellas shelter coordinator Michael Amidei said that shelters would reopen overnight but that the lack of wind might make it more bearable outdoors. He said the warming trend expected today may mean shelters will not reopen tonight.

Times staff writers Kim Wilmath, Danny Valentine and Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Note: This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Gary Parke's last name was misspelled.

Mercury falls, records fall

Most of the bay area failed to get out of the 40s Tuesday, and a few cities broke records for the lowest high temperature recorded on Dec. 14.

. Tampa's high was 48, shattering the previous lowest high temperature of 53, which was set in 1962, according to Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay.

. St. Petersburg's high was 48, breaking the record of 52, set in 1962.

. Brooksville's high was 47, breaking the record of 50 set in 1914.

Farmers escape icy blast with few losses — so far 12/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 9:32am]

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