One of the hazards of growing produce during the winter is the potential for killer freezes.

When water in the Gulf of Mexico at Naples, Fla., falls to 52 degrees the night before a freeze, you know growers are in for some bone-chilling nights.

Warm Florida winds couldn't break long freeze

Doug Ohlemeier
Eastern Editor

Used to freezing weather, Florida growers have weathered many cold snaps and nights of subfreezing temperatures.

In early to mid-January, it was the duration of freezing weather that destroyed many of the state’s winter vegetables and tomatoes.

Consecutive nights of severe cold devastated tender young and mature bell pepper, green bean, sweet corn, squash and tomato plants.

Freezes normally hit a night or two. The unusual thing about this cold was it never warmed up.

Grower-shippers are comparing the freeze of 2010 to a killer freeze that struck on Christmas Eve in 1989.

Then, the cold froze below the ground and killed all but the most hardy or protected winter vegetables.

“This was the worst freeze since 1989, but not worse than that year,” said J.M. Procacci, vice chairman and chief operating officer of Plant City, Fla.-based Ag-Mart Produce Inc., which grows grape tomatoes south of Immokalee, Fla.

That year, temperatures fell so low for so long that even Havana saw freezing temperatures.

Burned brown leaves were all around Immokalee — the hub of Florida’s winter tomato production before the state’s spring deals begin in late March.

View The Packer's slideshow of Florida freeze damage.

 

“A lot of people’s winter crops were a 100% loss,” said Field Corbitt, a farm manager for West Coast Tomato Inc., which trucks its Immokalee-area tomatoes to Palmetto, Fla. for packing.  “Everything is brown. There’s very little that didn’t get affected.”

More than crop loss

South Florida tomato growers normally pick fruit every day this time of the year. Now, they will have a large gap lasting until early March before they can resume harvest, suffering immense sales losses and extra labor to remove the dead vines.

The loss of jobs for masses of migrant workers that relocate to south Florida every year was of primary concern for D.C. McClure, West Coast’s vice president, farm manager and company owner. McClure showed his 800-acre field of mature-green tomatoes north of Immokalee near Felda, Fla., to the state’s agriculture commissioner, Charles Bronson.

“What really hurts is the local economy where people thought they had jobs,” he said. “This freeze took everything. There’s nothing salvageable. This could also drive smaller farmers out of business.”

The freeze also burned plants in Belle Glade and Homestead.

“I’ve never seen an event like this in my 17 years here in south Florida,” said Jeff Stepanovich, salesman for Florida Specialties Inc., Immokalee, which grows beans and peppers. “Plants that had just emerged from the ground were brown and burnt. There was just no heat left in the ground.”

In Belle Glade, where growers pumped higher canal water levels to bring more warmth to fields that saw the thermometer plummet to 19 degrees, temperatures fell so low that the warm air that normally blows across the canals didn’t help.

Growers also flooded fields with warmer water and employed helicopters to spread the warm air across fields.

Sandy Palm Beach County land also usually makes for warmer temperatures and winds usually blow air warmed from Lake Okeechobee across the fields.

None of those plant warmers protected corn and bean plants.

The freeze transformed yellow corn ear tips to brown, discolored leaves and turned beans translucent.

It was discomforting hearing the falling tomatoes. Though there was little wind on a warm January day after the freeze, you could hear tomatoes dropping off vines.

Looks can be deceiving. To the naked eye, a tomato may look fine. But slice it open and you’ll quickly see the interior collapse and deteriorate.

On the first day after a jarring freeze, the plants never look as bad as they do the following day, growers say.

Hopefully, warmer weather may help improve some of the remaining crops.

E-mail dohlemeier@thepacker.com

Were your crops or supplies hurt by the Florida freeze? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.