(UPDATED COVERAGE, 1:05 p.m.) IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Preliminary estimates from Florida show 10 consecutive nights of freezes destroyed nearly a third of the state’s winter fruit and vegetable production and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

Harvesting remained stopped in many areas as growers wait for warmer weather to see what they can salvage.

UPDATED: One-third of Florida vegetables lost to freeze

Doug Ohlemeier

Kevin Hall (left), salesman at Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee, Fla., and Jim Monteith, sales manager, view bell pepper damage Jan. 12.Florida agricultural officials say the freeze damaged a minimum of 30% of the state’s fruits and vegetables and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

The severe cold struck all central and south Florida’s growing regions, from Plant City’s strawberries to vegetables in Immokalee and Naples in southwest Florida to Belle Glade in West Palm Beach County, to Homestead and areas along the East Coast.

On Jan. 14, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson toured the Plant City area and planned to visit other areas hit hard by the severe cold. He is expected to seek federal disaster assistance.

Terrance McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tallahassee, said state officials would receive preliminary damage estimates the week of Jan. 18. The cycle of subzero overnight temperatures ended Jan. 13.

He said the state expects a minimum of a 30% loss in production and millions of dollars in losses.

McElroy said central Florida experienced freezing temperatures during the early morning hours of Jan. 13.

Though the agency has people on the ground meeting with commodity groups, county extension agents and U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency representatives, McElroy said it’s hard to get solid numbers on damages caused.

“We anticipate there will be very substantial damages,” he said Jan. 14. “The tomatoes, sweet corn, zucchini squash, and many of the winter vegetables grown around Lake Okeechobee and further south, particularly those in lower-lying areas, were severely damaged.”

What percentage of the crop will be salvageable, McElroy said, won’t be determined until growers are able to return to fields.

In early reports, growers in Belle Glade reported losing winter corn and beans deals and Immokalee growers reported the freezes destroyed up to 60%-70% of their bell peppers and part of their squash.

“Because of the vulnerability of them, the tender leafy vegetables are much more vulnerable than the citrus grown under the canopy of a tree,” McElroy said.

On Jan. 14, Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover, said he saw some growers in 4-5 fields doing limited harvesting.

He said he’s amazed at how resilient plants have been considering the temperatures they endured.

“We are waiting to see how the plants come out,” Campbell said. “It’s a guessing game now. A week from now, we could have brown leaves. Some guys have it worse than others, and it’s very erratic by farm.

“Where we see problems are where growers had pump failure or other equipment issues where they lost pressure, but that was in very isolated spots,” he said. “The vast majority of the crop seems okay. We are cautiously optimistic to see white blooms.”

Meanwhile, the freezing temperatures have raised concerns in Georgia.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said growers remain concerned about temperatures but it’s too early to provide damage estimates, according to media reports.

South Georgia greens were damaged by low temperatures Jan. 10 and that continuous subfreezing temperatures are expected to cause damage.

Most Georgia growers haven’t planted their spring crops yet, but some Vidalia onion plantings have been delayed.

In Texas' Rio Grande Valley, low temperatures have set the cabbage crop back, which could effect St. Patrick's Day supplies.

“We didn’t have damage to our cabbage crop (from the freeze)," said Frank Schuster, president of Val Verde Vegetable Co. McAllen, Texas. “What we have had is cabbage maturing about 2 weeks later than what we normally plan for.”

This is due to the cold weather and rain during planting in the fall.

“We were fortunate that we were able to plant during the prime time for St. Patrick’s Day,” he said. “Whether the crop will come off in time is another question.”

McDonald's USA, Oak Brook, Ill., does not expect to have any problems finding enough tomatoes for its sandwiches and salads, said Danya Proud, a company spokeswoman.

"It's business as usual for us," she said. "We will continue to maintain an assured supply of tomatoes for our restaurants."


Retail Editor Pamela Riemenschneider and Markets Editor Andy Nelson contributed to this article.

(Note on correction: This report originally misstated the total acreage devoted to fruit and vegetable production in Florida in the eighth paragraph.)