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Freeze wipes out Pasco charity's food crops

Only the romaine lettuce survived. The rest — tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant — all died in Tuesday morning's freeze.

"We lost about 15,000 plants," said Lester Cypher, chief executive officer of Volunteer Way, a nonprofit social service agency that provides thousands of needy families with fresh veggies grown on its hydroponic farm off Congress Street in New Port Richey. "This is going to affect 1,000 to 2,000 families."

Temperatures in the county sank as low as 21 degrees in the Dade City area and 20 at Moon Lake, according to Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay. Wesley Chapel recorded 25, while New Port Richey was the "warm" spot at 27 degrees.

"This could go down as one of the coldest Decembers on record if not the coldest," Clay said.

The cold also damaged some of east Pasco's signature fruit, the kumquat, which will be celebrated at the annual festival next month in Dade City.

"We have some on tops of the hills that didn't get hurt," said Frank Gude, a co-owner of Kumquat Growers Inc. in St. Joe. He said trees in low-lying areas did suffer damage. Fortunately about 8,000 of the 15,000 bushels of fruit had been picked, and he estimated about 1,200 to 1,500 bushels might be lost.

"It's going to slow us down, but it won't shut us down completely," said Gude, who recorded a low of 28 at his house.

That's in sharp contrast to last season, when unrelenting cold killed half the crop and forced Gude to lay off 60 workers.

"We just closed the doors and shut down for the season," he said.

The hard freeze sent homeless people scrambling for a warm place to spend the night. Volunteer Way, which runs a Moon Lake shelter for men, had about 12 show up Tuesday.

"I cooked them breakfast this morning," Cypher said. "Steak and eggs."

Community Congregational Church in New Port Richey had 18 men and two women come in for the night. County officials didn't receive counts from other shelters but said they have seen more women and children this year due to the sluggish economy.

"More families are out there," said Joe Johnston, operations coordinator for Pasco County's emergency management department.

The county's five shelters were preparing to remain open Tuesday evening, even though temperatures weren't expected to dip quite as low as the night before.

"I hope after that we can close for the season," Johnston said. "But I don't think we've seen the last of it."

One organization reaped the benefits of lessons learned from last winter's loss.

Morningstar Fishermen, a faith-based nonprofit agency near Dade City that raises fish to help impoverished countries establish aquaculture, lost 2,000 of its estimated 10,000 fish last winter. This year, it installed a solar collector and was able to heat well water. This time, the cold snap killed only about 55 tilapia.

"Last year we were not prepared," founder Hans Geissler said. "This year we are better off."

Volunteer Way's Cypher wants to be better prepared for next time.

He wants to raise money to invest in structures that look like Quonset huts to protect the crops. The greenhouse-type structures, which cost about $4,500 each, are also tall enough to accommodate space heaters.

"I'm tired of losing plants," Cypher said.

In the meantime, Volunteer Way will try to provide canned goods to its low-income clients until its new crop is ready this spring.

"We're not quitters," Cypher said. "We're going to be here and make things happen."

He should get better weather for replanting, at least for the next couple of weeks. The forecast calls for a warming trend.

"It'll be closer to where it should be," Bay News 9's Clay said. As for whether this winter will be as cold as the last, "there's no way of knowing if that's going to happen again."

Freeze wipes out Pasco charity's food crops 12/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 28, 2010 8:57pm]
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