(UPDATED COVERAGE, Noon)  BELLE GLADE, Fla. — Growers say south Florida vegetable crops have extensive damage after freezing temperatures struck during the early morning hours of Jan. 11.

UPDATED: Extensive initial damage reported for south Florida vegetables

Doug Ohlemeier

Though Florida strawberries have survived a week of freezing temperatures, the state's vegetables and tomatoes in Immokalee and Belle Glade have in early estimates sustained extensive damage from the record cold.

Citrus and strawberries apparently have escaped major damage, but strawberry shipments remain at a standstill.

Growers say temperatures in Immokalee, where winter vegetables including tomatoes are grown, remained below freezing for more than nine hours.

One vegetable grower-shipper said f.o.b. prices and quality will be affected greatly.

Officials with Immokalee-based Six L’s Packing Co. Inc. were in the fields inspecting damage the morning of Jan. 11.

“I believe we will have some extensive damage,” said Mike Shier, sales manager for Six L’s’ vegetable department. “We had some extreme low temperatures.”

Growers say temperatures fell to 27-28 degrees in southwest Florida.

Homestead, where eggplant, green beans, sweet corn and tomatoes are grown, received some ice and 30-degree temperatures. Shier and other grower-shippers say they are hearing that region sustained damage as well.

Garrett Griffin, a salesman for S.M. Jones & Co. Inc., said he heard Homestead, which grows the majority of Florida’s January and February corn, sustained extensive damage.

“I’m not really sure what we have left (there),” he said.

Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover, said the strawberry deal has survived the temperatures that fall to the mid-20s.

“The only places where we have apparent issues now are where growers had equipment failures or gaps in sprinkler coverage,” he said Jan. 11. “All things considered, the plants have iced-over well overnight. Once we get back to normal temperatures, the leaves will begin to show. Though everything is stressed, the plants should come out of it.”

Though Campbell said some modest harvesting was done Jan. 8, the weather is keeping the plants from producing many berries. 

Campbell said one grower north of Plant City reported the temperature falling to as low as 18 degrees.

Though the industry was assessing damages on Jan. 11, Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Florida Citrus Mutual, Lakeland, said the brunt of the damage occurred  in the north and west side of the state’s citrus belt along Desoto, Hardee and Hendry counties.

He said east and central Florida growing regions — the bulk of the fresh deal — escaped serious damage.

“The reports we are getting tell us there is frozen fruit as well as twig and leaf damage out there now (but) it may be days or weeks until we figure out whether there is long-term tree damage,”  Michael Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer, said in a news release. “Complicating the issue is the sheer number of cold days we had in a row. I can’t remember anything like it.”

For citrus fruit damage to set in, temperatures must reach 28 degrees for four hours or more, Meadows said.

Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League, Vero Beach, said constant wind kept temperatures from falling too low and prevented major damage to the region’s grapefruit.

“We got lucky as the wind mixed the air uniformly,” he said Jan. 11. “It’s better to have a little bit of wind all night than no wind because when it gets real still, it radiates out any heat. We would it rather be 28-30 degrees uniformly than to have pockets where it’s colder. On previous nights, we got some spotty cold pockets spotty with very light damage but not significant.”