It wasn’t supposed to be this kind of season.

Doug Ohlemeier
Eastern Editor

All the grower-shippers and the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” had predicted a warmer winter for Florida.

After the beating grower-shippers took in January 2010 when freezes devastated much of their winter vegetable and tomato production, the 2010-11 season was supposed to be one of higher thermometer readings.

Before the early freezes struck, Florida growers were saying how they hoped the weather had to improve.

They told me they’re ready for and are due for a good season. It’s been a tough two years with freezes that struck in 2009 as well.

“This freeze is in the same calendar year. Not the next year, but the same year,” said Billy Heller, chief executive officer of Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto, Fla.

While hoping for more favorable growing season weather, more than one grower-shipper told me about the “dropping acorns” predictor.

A foreshadowing of cooler weather to come, a grower remarked on how oak trees were dropping many — maybe too many — acorns in early December. Just like last year when the same grower noticed an abnormally large number of acorns on the ground.

He didn’t necessarily believe that since the prognosticators, with all their wizardry, said a La Niña was in place — which for Florida usually means milder weather and less rain.

Instead, grower after grower lamented the freezes that struck the first weeks of December.

“We have never had a freeze this early as far as I can remember on Dec. 7,” said another grower-shipper.

Those were the first early December freezes the growing region has had in three decades, weather officials said.

Growers optimistic

On the morning of one of those freezes, I came upon Chris Smith, sales manager for BBI Produce Inc., Dover, Fla., driving his pickup truck through the fields so he could take some photos to show his retail customers how the berries came out after the successive nights of cold.

Back at his sales desk, he was busy working the phones assuring customers that supplies would arrive, eventually.

“Everyone is on the fence and is excited and ready for Florida strawberries,” he said.

Though Shawn Pollard works sales for Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, Plant City, he was up all night assisting the growers that monitored falling temperatures.

Pollard says temperatures can vary up to 6 degrees between fields less than a quarter of a mile away.

During last January’s freezes, Plant City area growers got a lot of heat from residents upset about all the pumping growers did.

The homeowners feared the growers’ heavy use of water caused numerous sinkholes. Growers spray their fields to form ice domes that protect their berries from the freezing temperatures.

Pollard said growers monitor temperatures throughout the night and only run their pumps out of necessity.

Since they live in the region as well, the growers don’t want their actions to be considered a cause of the sinkhole formation.

“Believe me, they don’t need the extra expense,” Pollard said of running the water. “There is very little margin of error. A grower can lose a crop quickly if he doesn’t stay on top of it.”

Because of the abundance of winter strawberries, many Plant City people’s livelihoods depend on success of those crops.

E-mail dohlemeier@thepacker.com

Have you felt the effect of freezes yet this growing season? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.