Record-breaking cold brings scattered damage to crops

TAMPA — Record low temperatures in Tampa and Fort Myers early Wednesday left farmers fretting over crops, with a few reports of scattered damage.

Forecasters say it's far from over. It could be weeks before growers know the full effect of the freeze that will continue for at least a couple more nights.

Meanwhile, power companies struggled to keep up with surging demand for heat.

Tampa was two degrees colder Wednesday morning than the previous low temperature recorded for the same date. That was 30 degrees in 1990, according to the National Weather Service.

Fort Myers was 34 degrees. The previous record was 36 degrees in 1956.

In Tampa, a wind chill made it feel more like 19 degrees, and in St. Petersburg, 37 degrees felt like 29, said National Weather Service meteorologist Anthony Reynes.

Another freeze warning was in effect from Wednesday at midnight to Thursday at 9 a.m. for most of the bay area, excluding Pinellas.

Thursday during the day should be in the upper 50's, with another cold front coming through Friday and Saturday. Friday morning could start with a few showers, but no freezing rain is expected.

"Keep bundling up," Reynes said. "Keep taking precautions to make sure you stay warm."

A low of 23 degrees was recorded at the Hernando County Airport south of Brooksville Wednesday night, and then temperatures rose a bit early that morning. The University of Florida weather station in northeast Hernando recorded a low of 22 at two feet above ground level.

Overnight temperatures that dipped well below freezing likely damaged strawberries — even some that were being irrigated.

Alica Whidden, a University of Florida extension office agent, said damaged strawberries appear mushy once they thaw and could have brown or black freeze spots on their tops.

"It looks like those that were under sprinklers will be mushy," said grower George Casey, southwest of Brooksville. "I think it will be Tuesday or Wednesday (of next week) before we know."

Casey's wife, Joan, assigned to temperature-taking duties, recorded a low of 14 degrees on black plastic beneath the berry plants when the air temperature stood at 21 degrees early Wednesday.

At Beasley Farm, a commercial vegetable enterprise east of Brooksville, Joann Beasley came in from the fields early Wednesday, saying, "So far, I'm okay."

She referred to the cold-hardy crops that are in growing and harvesting stages.

"The broccoli looks good, and that's one of the things I was worried about," she said.

Swiss chard, spinach, radishes and other greens that thrive in cold weather survived. "Some people say they get sweeter when it's cold, so these will be really, really sweet," Beasley said.

She added: "If it gets down into the teens, I'll be really worried."

Carl Grooms, owner of the Plant City strawberry-producing Fancy Farms, said the temperature at his farm early Wednesday was 26 degrees.

Groomes and his employees kept vigil over the berries all night. A layer of ice covered the berries early Wednesday, and so far the damage was minor, Grooms said.

Still, he's gearing up for at least three more nights of the same routine.

"We do our best and leave all the rest to the man upstairs," Grooms said.

Andrew Meadows, spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, said he has heard of some citrus damage in cold pockets around the bay area, but so far "it's certainly not a catastrophic event."

"We're really not out of the woods, though," Meadows said. "There's still a lot of anxiety with the front coming through Friday."

Meadows said citrus farmers can know pretty quickly if fruits are damaged by cutting into their flesh and checking for ice crystals.

"Thats part of what they do when they're staying up all night," he said. "They'll cut fruit and look for ice."

Ice inside the fruit dries out the juice as it freezes, Meadows explained.

Frank Gude, who grows kumquats near Dade City, said he anticipates minor damage to fruits in the lower-ground areas. It was 28 degrees at his farm early Wednesday.

"Right now we have a cooler completely full of fruits, so we've got enough to last a week or two," Gude said.

What he was really worried was having enough intact kumquats for the Dade City Kumquat Festival on Jan. 30.

"It's borderline this morning," he said.

Blueberry growers did a bit better, with most of the berries still tight in their buds, said Ruth Davis of the Spring Lake Blueberry Farm on Powell Road, south of Brooksville.

At the Rawlins Tropical fish farm in Lithia, owner Art Rawlins called the situation "critical."

"I expect a disaster before the week's out," Rawlins said.

The temperature in one of his ponds was 54 degrees Wednesday morning. The fish inside, accustomed to water near 72 degrees, were waking up very lethargic, Rawlins said.

It'll be awhile before he can start counting fatalities. Dead fish don't float when the water's so cold, he said.

"It's going to be a disaster. I don't see any way for it to not be a disaster."

Local residents who stayed indoors all night had troubles of their own.

About 3,300 Progress Energy customers in Northeast St. Petersburg lost power Tuesday about 9:15 p.m. due to a usage surge and strain on the system, said spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.

Most people had power restored within an hour. Everyone was back in business by 1 a.m.

Jacobs said a connector that links different power lines was overworked as people turned up the heat.

"It was a weather-related outage," she said.

Tampa Electric had only a few scattered outages, said spokesman Rick Morera.

Officials were monitoring customers' usage carefully, particularly considering the extreme cold of the past few days, to make sure the system could meet demand, Morera said.

Times correspondent Beth N. Gray contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

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Ice coats a thermometer Wednesday morning near strawberry fields on Simmons Farm in Dover.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Ice coats a thermometer Wednesday morning near strawberry fields on Simmons Farm in Dover.

Record-breaking cold brings scattered damage to crops 01/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 11:47am]

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