(UPDATED COVERAGE, 9:30 p.m.) PLANT CITY, Fla. — Florida’s strawberry and citrus crops have escaped serious damage after surviving one of the coldest nights in recent history.

Freezing weather sent central Florida temperatures to record levels during the early morning hours of Jan. 6, and more cold weather is predicted for the weekend, Jan. 8-10.

For the state's winter vegetables growing regions, the National Weather Service has issued a freeze warning and wind chill advisory for most of south Florida's inland areas, from Naples and Immokalee to West Palm Beach and Belle Glade.

Most regions except for immediate coastal areas remain under the warning.

The weather service predicts temperatures will drop near or below freezing for several hours.

Temperatures in the Plant City area, where most of the state’s strawberries are grown, fell to as low as 24 degrees before dawn on Jan. 6.

Growers ran their sprinkler systems throughout the evening to protect their plants from freeze damage.

As the water hits the plants and freezes, the act of freezing emits energy and produces heat, thus protecting the tender berries.

“We are concerned but not out of the woods yet,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wishnatzki Farms. “This coming weekend is at least as cold if not colder. Hopefully, it won’t be rough.”

In initial estimates, the cold didn’t seriously harm the state’s citrus crop.

“Without a doubt, last night we were scared,” David Mixon, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of  Seald Sweet International, Vero Beach, Fla., said Jan. 6. “An hour or a degree here or there could have hurt us. We got by by the skin of our teeth.”

Some growing regions dipped as low as 24 degrees, Mixon said, but most were warmer. In all, he estimates volume losses at about 1-5%.

And on the positive side, those low temperatures will mean brighter-colored, sweeter fruit down the road, Mixon said.

Also on the bright side, a forecast for more very cold temperatures the weekend of Jan. 9-10 had been upgraded, Mixon said. Cloud cover could moderate temperatures then, he said.

Preliminary reports from Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual also indicated minimal damage from the low mid-week temperatures, said Andrew Meadows, the organization’s director of communications.

“There are isolated pockets of damage, but overall we did OK,” he said.

In a news release, Meadows said Indian River grapefruit were not damaged, according to early reports.

To help shippers, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency and issued an executive order directing the state’s transportation department to ease weight, height, length and width restrictions for trucks hauling crops vulnerable to the freezes.

The order, which expires Jan. 18, is designed to allow grower-shippers to quickly harvest and transport their crops during the spell of cold weather that is affecting Florida, according to a news release.
 
“This freezing weather has created a serious situation for our state's agricultural producers, who now must rush to harvest their crops to prevent further losses,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said in the release. â€œThe temporary easing of highway restrictions enables farmers to more quickly transport their crops to processing facilities and help avoid financial disaster.”

The Packer's Markets Editor Andy Nelson contributed to this story.

UPDATED: For now, Florida strawberries, citrus escape major damage

Doug Ohlemeier

Marcus Caswell (left), quality assurance manager for Wishnatzki Farms, Plant City, Fla., and Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer, view a field of strawberries at dawn on Jan. 6. After several nights of below-freezing temperatures, Florida strawberry and citrus industries have survived without serious losses.