Florida tomato supply gaps are expected with the Immokalee area damage up to 80% of the crop, some growers say. For this updated Dec. 15 evening coverage, see Florida vegetables 'severely hurt'.

(UPDATED COVERAGE, 11:30 a.m.) IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Early estimates have tomatoes and other vegetables suffering significant damage from consecutive nights of freezing weather in south Florida growing regions Dec. 15, with possible supply gaps at the end of the year.

Immokalee-area tomatoes could be down by as much as 80% while Belle Glade-area green beans and corn could be devastated.

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, which has winter tomato production in the Immokalee area, called damage severe after subfreezing temperatures struck the region during the early morning hours of Dec. 15.

He said initial damage looks to be 70%-80%, and buyers should expect shortages.

UPDATED: Freeze wipes out some Florida tomatoes

File photo

Growers face substantial freeze damage in the Immokalee-Fla., area, following several nights of freezing temparatures. The damage could be worse than what the area saw after a January 2010 freeze, shown in this Florida tomato field.

“When we saw the freeze coming, we started harvesting all the tomatoes we could and have them in the room,” he said Dec. 15. “We plan to sell next during the next four to five days. After that inventory is sold, there will be a gap of four to six weeks of not a lot of product coming out of Florida. After that, there won’t be any product coming out.”

In Belle Glade, the nation’s winter hub for beans and corn, temperatures fell to the mid-20s.

Though no one has given an official estimate on damage, Mike Owens, a salesman with Pioneer Growers Co-op, Belle Glade, said he has never seen so much ice in the area.

“It looks like it’s very devastating,” he said Dec. 15. “We got hit last week pretty bad, so there wasn’t a whole lot left still green and still alive. We definitely had a frost and had lots of ice everywhere this morning. Everything is probably frozen.”

Gene McAvoy, a multi-county vegetable agent in Hendry County, LaBelle, said the region’s tomatoes suffered extensive damage.

“We have had some pretty significant damage,” he said. “It’s not quite as bad as last year I would say, but a lot of the older stuff was frozen out. Some of the younger tomatoes, growers were able to protect with irrigation. Most of the tomatoes within 10 days of harvest are pretty much frozen.”

McAvoy said growers were able to save some young plants by creating a “microclimate” protecting the plants.

The Immokalee-area tomato harvest generally begins in late November and ramps up in volume in December, with central Florida production typically finishing by Christmas.

Growers report tomatoes in the central Florida Palmetto-Ruskin growing region, which typically end production by late December, were destroyed as temperatures fell to 29 degrees.