The deep freeze that struck the Southeast destroyed much of Floridaâs winter vegetables, brought the stateâs packinghouses to a halt and knocked many of Floridaâs growers out of one of their key marketing windows.
But the January and February downtime also allowed many shippers to update their operations.
Jim Monteith, sales manager for Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee, Fla., said packinghouses werenât waiting for the summer off season to do annual projects such as paint and equipment repairs. With packing lines idled, companies put crews to work on seasonal repairs.
âThis whole town should be cranking with product, but it is at a standstill,â he said. âWe have had some minor frosts in years past, but nothing the size we experienced this year.â
In Belle Glade, the hub of the stateâs sweet corn production, packinghouses should have been buzzing with the sounds of forklifts moving pallets of corn crates into hydrocoolers, but they were eerily quiet.
Owners of Belle Glade, Fla.-based S. M. Jones & Co. Inc. had already made seasonal improvements to the packinghouse and there was little for workers to do.
John Alger, vice president and operating manager of Alger Farms Inc., a Homestead grower-shipper who co-owns S.M. Jones & Co., said the packinghouse and farming operations went into a lockdown mode and had to put many of its workers on unemployment until a planned return to production in late March.
Since Jan. 11, 10 packinghouse employees and 70 fieldworkers have been out of work.
âItâs rough out there,â Alger said.
âWe donât have the funds and the income. When thereâs no income coming in, you have to really button down in todayâs environment. Credit is tight and you have to watch your pennies.â
R.C. Hatton Inc., Pahokee, Fla., which grows and packs beans and corn through Performance Packaging, South Bay, Fla., was fortunate to escape some of the freeze damage.
For a couple of weeks when Hatton didnât have any volume to run the plant, the operation performed some yearly maintenance, such as resurfacing the floor, that it would have normally done later in the summer.
Roger Hatton, R.C. Hattonâs president, said through it all, his growers didnât lay off any of their workers.
Hatton shifted workers from the packinghouse to the fields, handpicking beans that normally would be machine-picked.
âWe look at people maybe a little differently than some non-farming corporations do,â Hatton said.
âPeople make you money and donât cost you too much. Our laborers at every level are important. I learned 50 years ago that I can drive only one tractor.â
While sales desks had to scramble to find product to fill shortages during Floridaâs lucrative winter window, growers should have product this spring.
That should bring better sounds coming out of south Florida packinghouses.
Did you have freeze-induced downtime? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.