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Have citrus growers been frozen out of county?

Hernando's citrus growers say the Christmas freeze was a blow to anindustry struggling to recover from two devastating cold snaps in the 1980s, but some said they need time to assess the damage before giving up the business.

"It's going to be two months before I can make any kind of judgment," said Jack Endsley. Endsley, 80, said he has been raising citrus on 67 acres since he was in his 20s. "The trees have been just mutilated in this area."

He predicted it will be two months before he can tell whether the trees can be nursed back to health or whether they were too badly damaged.

Endsley shipped about three trailer loads of fruit this year, the first fruit he has sold since the 1983 and 1985 freezes devastated the once-thriving Hernando citrus industry, he said. He decided to replant trees after those freezes and he said that he may do it again.

"It just depends on how much I want to gamble," he said.

Property Appraiser Les Samples estimated there were 9,000 acres planted in citrus before 1983. That number dropped nearly to zero after 1985, then crept to about 2,200 acres this year, he said.

"The number of acres started to increase in citrus, then zap! it goes again," Samples said.

While growers are waiting to see how they will fare, other citrus-related businesses still are booming.

Katherine Oleson, of the Citrus Attraction at Boyett Groves in Spring Lake, said the fresh fruit shipping business is going as strong as ever by buying fruit from farther south near Palmetto and Fort Myers.

"In good weather, we use almost completely local fruit," she said. But, "the cold weather did burn the leaves, that's pretty obvious."

Mrs. Oleson said she and her husband, James, have been running the

processing, packing and gift store for 16 years. They also have a 20-acre grove, a small park, exotic animals such as llamas and monkeys and other curiosities.

The county's only commercial processing plant ran virtually non-stop from Christmas to early February, turning fruit into juice before it could spoil. Local growers provided the first push of 24-hour days at the plant in late December and less badly damaged fruit from the south provided a second influx, said plant manager Bill Brayton.

Brayton said the plant, started in 1931 by his grandfather, has never depended only on local fruit. But after about 40 years in the citrus business, Brayton said he's saddened to hear local growers talk again about giving up.

"It kind of tears me up, really," he said. "There's a lot of damage out there and I don't know if they have the gumption to bring it back."

County extension agent Al Dawson said the temperature dropped as low as 16 degrees and stayed below freezing for 39 hours during the latest freeze, a temperature drop that rivaled the earlier freezes.

Any time the temperature drops below 29 degrees for more than four hours, the groves will be damaged, Dawson said.

But he said some trees along Spring Lake Highway in the heart of the former citrus growing area are putting out new leaves. But people will have to wait for the spring growth to tell if the wood was frozen, he said. Over time, the trees might begin to show new life - or reveal undiscovered damage.

"About all we can say is, it's too early to assess the total situation," he said. "Although people get discouraged when (a freeze) happens, if they think they can recover, they may. But they'll think twice before they put any more money in it."