(Jan. 17) IMMOKALEE, Fla. — The early January freeze could severely limit Immokalee’s winter tomato shipments, slowing movement into March, and Florida strawberry growers will likely miss out on some Valentine’s Day promotions.

In mid January, growers were able to provide clearer estimates of potential losses from a Jan. 3 freeze that damaged Florida’s strawberries and tomatoes.

The freeze could stop Florida’s strawberry growers from hitting the Valentine’s Day push as strawberry growers doubled their earlier reported losses.

Buyers should expect lighter supplies of Immokalee-area tomatoes from late January through March, shippers said.

The state supplies a majority of strawberries and tomatoes to U.S. buyers during the winter.

Immokalee and other south Florida growing regions supply the state’s winter tomato production. The Immokalee area could have lost up to half of its tomatoes on some of its fields, said Larry Lipman, chief executive officer of Six L’s Packing Co. Inc.

“You will definitely have a two-week period of almost no or very light supplies,” he said Jan. 16. “Two weeks from now, supplies will start dropping quickly from what they would normally have been in the Immokalee area. There will be very little or very, very light supplies until mid-March, when it will start to pick up.”

For strawberries, Plant City-area growers lost $9.5 million in sales, up from a $4.7 million reported loss comparing the same pickings to last season, said Shawn Crocker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover.

Strawberry growers, which normally pick more than a million flats a week during early and mid-January, picked an average 34% fewer flats after the freeze stunted many of their berries, Crocker said.

“When you think catastrophe, you think of 100% plant loss, where you don’t have any opportunity to recover,” he said. “We will be able to recover, but volume will occur when our window is over, when California comes in.”

When some berry volume begins to return, growers may even miss providing the already difficult to hit Valentine’s Day market with any significant volumes because of the freeze’s timing and the length of recovery, Crocker said.

Because of planting cycles and weather, Florida growers don’t always have enough promotable volume for Valentine’s Day shipments, shippers say.

In mid-January, Florida strawberries remained at $16.90-18.90 for flats of 8 one-pound clamshells, which represent a majority of the state’s shipments, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Flats of 12 1-pint baskets medium-large were $18.90-20.90.

Because Mexico had started ramping up its tomato shipments, tomato prices in mid-January had actually fallen, and may have fallen even more had it not been for the freeze, Lipman said.

From central and south Florida, 25-pound cartons of loose mature greens 85% U.S. No. 1 or better size 5x6s sold for $17.65, $15.65 for 6x6s and $13.65 for 6x7s. That’s lower than the week before when the same sizes sold for $19.65, $15.65-16.65 and $11.65, respectively.

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, said there hasn’t been any concerted industry effort to assess the value of the loss. He said the freeze shouldn’t cause major disruptions to Florida’s overall winter tomato movement.

“We anticipate some of the bloom drop to manifest itself sometime in early to mid-February,” Brown said Jan. 16. “By time we get to the normal Immokalee cycle of harvesting on a normal basis in early to mid-March, it should be back to rolling along like normal.”

Richard Levine, president of Immokalee Produce Shippers Inc., estimated a 30% loss to his 500 acres of romas, grapes and round tomatoes.

“We were within a half an hour to an hour of losing everything,” he said. “It was close. But at least we’re still going.”

Strawberry crop losses double since first reports
These strawberries near Dover, Fla., were protected by ice formed after growers sprayed water on their fields during the night to protect the berries from an early January freeze that sent temperatures into the low 20s. In mid-January, Florida strawberry growers reported damage of twice the original estimates.