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On freezing nights, crop growers stand guard

Ruth Davis said her husband, Larry, had been out in the fields for the second night in a row, tending to the plants and monitoring the sprinklers at Spring Lake Blueberry Farm. “We would lose the whole crop if we didn’t do this,” Davis said. “They are pretty much flowered out, so it’s pretty critical to save this.”

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Ruth Davis said her husband, Larry, had been out in the fields for the second night in a row, tending to the plants and monitoring the sprinklers at Spring Lake Blueberry Farm. “We would lose the whole crop if we didn’t do this,” Davis said. “They are pretty much flowered out, so it’s pretty critical to save this.”

BROOKSVILLE — Wednesday night brought very little sleep for JG Ranch owners George and Joan Casey.

Instead of being nestled in a nice warm bed on the frigid night, the Brooksville blueberry farmers huddled inside their motor home, parked amid their berry crop.

It's a familiar wintertime ritual that sees the couple monitoring the thermometer and keeping vigil over their irrigation system as it helps protect the delicate blossoms on 18,000 plants. About every two hours one of them has to get up to make sure the sprinklers are doing their job.

"It's not fun but you don't have much of a choice," offered George Casey. "We're pretty used to it."

Wednesday night's temperatures plummeted to 19 degrees at the ranch. Though the Caseys have seen it colder before, their biggest worry was the duration of the freeze.

"It hit 32 at about 7 last night," said Casey. "I don't think it got above freezing till about 9 this morning. That's not good."

Casey expects to lose about 5 percent of his crop, but he won't know the extent of the frost damage for three to five days. His biggest concern will be disease and fungus that could cause rot on the delicate blossoms.

At Boyett's Grove Citrus Attraction in Spring Lake, staff members spent Thursday morning examining the approximately 100 acres of citrus trees for damage. Fortunately, there was little fruit loss, said owner Kathy Oleson.

"We always worry a little when it gets that cold for so long," she said. "We're lucky in that most of the trees that were affected were in low areas. The ones on the hill seemed to do real well."

The National Weather Service reported a low of 21 degrees at Hernando Airport early Thursday morning. The coldest January temperature on record was 13 degrees on Jan. 21, 1985.

Hernando County Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program coordinator John Korycki cautioned homeowners not to water or fertilize delicate plants for a couple of weeks, and to wait until mid March when all danger of frost is over before pruning damaged tissue.

Said Korycki, "They're going to be wilted for a while, but chances are, they'll be okay."

Korycki said pruning plants too soon could subject new sprouts to further damage, should another freeze happen.

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

On freezing nights, crop growers stand guard 01/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 8:03pm]

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