DOVER — Matt Parke grew up on his family's strawberry farm, so he's spent many nights watching as whirring sprinklers coated the crop with a protective layer of ice.
Thursday's cold snap stands out in the 34-year-old old farmer's memory.
"I was a kid the last time I saw this much ice," Parke said Thursday morning as sprinklers continued to run on the 145 acres that comprise Parksdale Farms.
Parke, the farm's operations manager, said the mercury dropped to 22 degrees in his Dover fields and stayed there for more than six hours Thursday morning. Crews started running the irrigation system about 12:30 a.m.
The hours of dousing caused nearly an inch of ice to accumulate on the berry plants, Park said, and icicles on things like fences and farm equipment grew to more than a foot long. On a typical cold night when sprinklers run, icicles only reach a couple of inches in length, Parke said.
Florida Strawberry Growers Association executive director Kenneth Parker said he was worried about this cold snap and accompanying winds but by mid-afternoon had heard encouraging news from growers in the region.
"The early reports are there is very minimal damage, if any," Parker said as he walked the fields at the association's 12-acre research farm Dover, where the ice had melted to reveal virtually no frost damage to the fruit or flowers. "I'm amazed, actually. I was worried driving around seeing flags sticking straight out on the flagpoles."
Higher winds can push around the water flowing from the sprinklers, preventing growers from getting an even coating of ice. Winds in east Hillsborough blew at 10 to 15 miles per hour, which is about the upper limit for growers to get an even coating of ice, Parker said.
"We're lucky the winds weren't higher than they were," he said.
Parke said he expects some damage to his crops because wind limited his sprinklers' reach, creating roughly 4-by-3-foot, diamond-shaped areas that didn't get a good dousing.
"I think all in all it went pretty well," he said.
There's a chance Parke and his fellow growers will be back at it Friday morning. Forecasters have issued a freeze watch for eastern Hillsborough, with a forecast low right at 32 degrees.
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.