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Farmers survey crops after Monday night's freeze

As the sun rose over ice-covered strawberries Tuesday, farmer Shad Simmons wondered whether the worst was over.

Below-freezing temperatures Monday night forced Simmons and other east Hillsborough growers to turn on sprinklers to cover berries with a protective layer of ice. And though temperatures didn't get quite as cold as expected, bottoming out in the mid 20s and 30s, some damage was already evident.

Simmons, 29, whose father runs E.W. Simmons Farms in Dover, pointed out faint black spots in his family's 117 green acres. It'll probably be another week until the extent of the freeze is clear.

"It's not something you look forward to," Simmons said, kicking at hard, frozen dirt beneath his feet.

On Monday, Forecasters had predicted that temperatures could be in the teens in Brooksville and the low 30s in Pinellas. Brooksville was 26 and Clearwater was 37. Meteorologist Juli Marquez said northwesterly winds in some parts of Tampa Bay blew in slightly warmer air from the Gulf of Mexico.

Still, Tuesday's temperatures were about 15 to 20 degrees below average.

Simmons said he and his dad stayed up all night, periodically checking an outdoor thermometer that had frozen to the wooden deck. At one point, the farm reached 26 degrees.

The sprinklers would probably have to remain on until about 10 a.m. or later, depending on when the reading got up to 34, Simmons said.

Meanwhile, regulators with the Southwest Florida Water Management District prepared to discuss rule changes for the agricultural areas of Dover in Plant City in an aim to reduce water-use during freezes by 20 percent in a decade. The district's monthly board meeting was scheduled for 9 a.m. in Brooksville.

Simmons said there was no point in attending.

"There's not much we can do about it," he said.

The proposed changes are the result of catastrophic effects of last winter's agricultural water use, when 11 straight nights of freezing temperatures in January forced farmers to pump about a dozen billion gallons of water from the ground — which in turn opened dozens of sinkholes and dried out hundreds of nearby residential wells.

In addition to limiting water use, the water-use board will likely push farmers to use alternative frost-protection measures, including insulating ground cover or rainwater retention ponds.

Like many other growers, Simmons said the alternatives aren't cost-effective.

Ground cover typically costs more than $1,000 an acre, he said, plus the labor cost of laying it out each freezing night. And to build a water-recovery pond would mean sacrificing a large chunk of acreage that could be used for crops.

Nevertheless, farmers say they'll do what they have to.

"We don't really have a choice," Simmons said.

Simmons said he and his father have only needed to run the sprinklers three times this winter — twice last week plus Monday night.

After last week's overnight freezes, six dry wells were reported.

Simmons said as long as the freezing nights are spread out, there shouldn't be too much of a problem. He may have to run the sprinklers Tuesday night, too, but because the wind should be milder, the strawberries have a better chance of being protected.

Maybe then it'll warm up, he hopes.

"I haven't ever seen it this cold this early," Simmons said.

Tuesday's temperatures are expected to peak in the upper 40s and lower 50s, forecasters said.

Hard-freeze warnings were issued for Tuesday night and Wednesday morning for most of west central Florida, including Pinellas County.

Wednesday morning is expected to be a few degrees colder, forecasters said. Temperatures could drop into the low 30s in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties while Pasco and Hernando could see temperatures in the teens and low 20s.

Warmer weather should finally make its way to Tampa Bay Thursday morning. Lows are forecast in the high 30s and low 40s, warming up to the mid- to upper-60s later in the day.

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Farmers survey crops after Monday night's freeze 12/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 14, 2010 11:10am]
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