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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]
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