Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Million-dollar risk rides on couple of cold nights in Florida's berry fields

PLANT CITY — Carl Grooms' strawberry crop made it through the longest cold snap of his 36-year career, but Saturday left him wondering if all his sleepless nights were in vain.

The lowest temperatures were yet to come. Tonight he could still lose everything.

So when the drizzling rain subsided in the afternoon, Grooms and his Fancy Farms workers grabbed paintbrushes and bottles of lubricant to coat the sprinkler heads that dot his 225-acre farm — a precaution taken only during the coldest weather.

Strawberry farmers usually turn their sprinklers on when the temperature hits 30 degrees. The water becomes ice, and the energy that's released warms the plants.

But if it's really cold, ice forms on the sprinklers and they can't move. Large patches of valuable plants could die. Grooms learned the hard way in the Christmas freeze of '83, so now he uses the lubricant to keep the ice from sticking.

Grooms stays in his fields on freezing nights, constantly monitoring plants, pumps and sprinklers. He checks in with other farmers on his cell phone. Questions run through his head: Is that pump running? Are the engines okay? If we save all this fruit, what's the price going to be three weeks from now? Is it worth it?

That's the problem. Strawberries are scarce now because the plants don't produce many berries when they're cold, so farmers are getting higher prices for their fruit. That doesn't mean much when overhead is high — the pumps use expensive diesel fuel — and there's not much to pick, Grooms said.

In his field on Saturday, he pointed at delicate white blossoms. Those are the first to die when it gets cold, he said. Then he lifted up some leaves and gently grabbed a cluster of green berries.

"This is what we're trying to save," he said.

Grooms estimated the fruit on his bushes is worth more than $1 million, though much of that will go toward paying bills, he said. However, he's worried that when those berries ripen and production picks up in a couple of weeks, the market will be flooded and he won't make much on the fruit he worked so hard to save.

Like many other strawberry farmers, Grooms doesn't have crop insurance. A pilot federal strawberry crop insurance program no longer exists, he said. Disaster relief, if farmers qualify, comes in the form of low-interest loans.

Still, he doesn't want sympathy.

"If you can't handle the stress," he said, "you shouldn't be in agriculture."

On Saturday, other farmers in the Tampa Bay area also fretted over their crops.

In Hernando County, Joann Beasley was in the fields at 5 a.m. harvesting what broccoli, collard greens, mustard greens and cabbage she could. Ice covered the plants. Sleet pelted her face.

"What's this about?" she said. "I'm in Central Florida.

In eastern Pasco County, Frank Gude, co-owner of Kumquat Growers Inc., one of the nation's largest distributor of kumquats, said there wasn't anything that could be done to protect all 45 acres of the small citrus fruit.

"We're just going to sit here and hope," he said.

Farmers wouldn't be the only ones to suffer if strawberry crops are damaged in the freeze. Agriculture is one of the biggest industries in Hillsborough County, and strawberries are the top commodity, said Stephen Gran, director of Hillsborough's Agriculture Industry Development program. There are 8,700 acres of strawberries in the county, and farmers produced about $315 million worth of berries in 2008, Gran said. He estimates the overall economic impact is more than $600 million. "If the crop were wiped out, that would be a significant economic blow to the county and the state, as well as to individual farmers," he said.

Grooms doesn't like to think about that. "Yeah, you could come through all this and then these next two nights could completely take away the crops you've saved."

Times staff writer Erin Sullivan contributed to this report.

Million-dollar risk rides on couple of cold nights in Florida's berry fields 01/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 10:51pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals

    Transportation

    TAMPA — Express lanes may not be coming to downtown Tampa after all. Or at least not to the stretch of Interstate 275 that goes north through Bearss Avenue.

    Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman discusses the new interstate options with V.M. Ybor resident Chris Vela (left), Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and HNTB consultant Chloe Coney during a Tampa Bay Express meeting Monday night at the Barrymore Hotel. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON  |  Times]
  2. No lack of issues facing St. Petersburg's six council candidates

    Elections

    ST. PETERSBURG — The six candidates for City Council gathered Monday evening in the very chamber to which they aspire to serve.

    St. Petersburg City Council candidates (from left)  Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless in District 2; Jerick Johnston and incumbent council member Darden Rice in District 4; and Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll of District 6. All six candidates appeared at Monday night's forum at City Hall sponsored by the League of Women Voters. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]

  3. Iraq's Kurds vote on independence, raising regional fears

    World

    IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Kurds voted Monday in a landmark referendum on supporting independence, a move billed by the Kurdish leadership as an exercise in self-determination but viewed as a hostile act by Iraq's central government. Neighboring Turkey even threatened a military response.

    People celebrate Monday after voting closed in a referendum on independence in Irbil, Iraq.
  4. North Korean diplomat says Trump has 'declared war'

    War

    UNITED NATIONS — North Korea's top diplomat said Monday that President Donald Trump's weekend tweet was a "declaration of war" and North Korea has the right to retaliate by shooting down U.S. bombers, even in international airspace.

    North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, center, speaks outside the U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York on Monday.
  5. Pinellas grants St. Pete's request to add millions to pier budget

    Local Government

    Times Staff Writer

    The Pinellas County Commission has granted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's request to dedicate millions more toward the city's new pier.

    The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday  voted 7-1 to appropriate $17.6 million for the over-water portion of the Pier District. This is a rendering of what the new Pier District could look like. [Courtesy of St. Petersburg]