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Crops not as hardy as tourists // Farmers scowl as freeze hits

The cold already has hurt Ruskin tomato farmer Mike Council. On Tuesday, he worked frantically to keep the latest icy blast from hurting him even more.

Council scrambled every worker he could find to salvage the surviving tomatoes in his field.

Christmas morning's cold had killed off the new golf-ball-sized tomatoes on top of his plants. Now pickers were trying to salvage the mature tomatoes farther down _ hours before another frost was forecast to hit.

"It could take the whole deal tonight," Council said.

The National Weather Service issued a freeze warning Tuesday night for Hillsborough County, predicting lows in the low to mid-30s. The mercury was expected to dip even further in the county's outlying areas, where most of Tampa Bay's fruit, vegetables and ornamental flowers are grown.

The villain behind the streak of exceptional cold weather is a blast of arctic air being funneled south through Central Florida, according to the weather service. The freeze warning prompted cold weather shelters to reopen throughout the bay area.

The weather is having a varied effect on Hillsborough farms. Inland farms get a critical few degrees colder than those closer to Tampa Bay. And some crops, like strawberries, are easier to protect against cold snaps than other crops, like fresh tomatoes.

Phil Vinson has 45 acres of strawberries in the ground in Dover, in eastern Hillsborough County. He was planning to spray his crops with water when the temperature dropped to 33 degrees. The protective coating of ice that forms keeps the berries at 32 degrees, even if the air temperature sinks lower.

Vinson was looking at another sleepless night of watching the weather and drinking coffee, but he expected to pull through.

Another Dover strawberry farmer, Roy Parke of Parkesdale Farms, said his crew was ready to water his 140 acres of strawberries and 20 acres of jalapeno peppers.

Less concerned was citrus farmer Don Elsberry, who has 250 acres of orange trees in Wimauma.

"I don't have anything I've got to protect," Elsberry said. "It takes about five hours of 27-degree temperatures to hurt citrus. It's not going to be that cold."

Council, the Ruskin tomato farmer who operates M. D. Council & Sons, wished he could be as worry-free. His fall tomato planting of 50 acres was a few weeks behind many of his neighbors, and the time lag did not help him.

Recent shipments of tomatoes from South Florida and Mexico have caused the market to plummet, according to growers. A crate of large tomatoes that fetched $16 two weeks ago now brings only $5 to $6.

Council estimates he lost 20 percent of his crop on Christmas morning. Despite their efforts, he said his crew would be able to bring in only a fraction of the tomatoes still on the vine.

They probably would bring in only about 40 thousand-pound bins, out of the 700 bins Council estimated are still out. And there is no insurance policy that covers a frost.

"The harvest was two-thirds over with," he said. "We only needed another week or 10 days."

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