PHOTOS: Southwest Florida farmers worry about winter ahead after early freeze hits crops

Organic produce grower Frank Oakes examines his strawberry plants after Wednesday morning's freeze at his farm in Golden Gate Estates. Wednesday was the second straight morning of subfreezing temperatures for farmers in inland regions of Southwest Florida. The frost ruined a batch of ripening berries. Damage to crops was not catastrophic, said Gene McAvoy, multi-county vegetable agent with the University of Florida/IFAM Extension in Hendry Country. However, the early freeze could spell major trouble if cold weather continues through  January and February as it did last winter. Photographed Dec. 8, 2010. Aaron Hale/Staff.

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Organic produce grower Frank Oakes examines his strawberry plants after Wednesday morning's freeze at his farm in Golden Gate Estates. Wednesday was the second straight morning of subfreezing temperatures for farmers in inland regions of Southwest Florida. The frost ruined a batch of ripening berries. Damage to crops was not catastrophic, said Gene McAvoy, multi-county vegetable agent with the University of Florida/IFAM Extension in Hendry Country. However, the early freeze could spell major trouble if cold weather continues through January and February as it did last winter. Photographed Dec. 8, 2010. Aaron Hale/Staff.

— For a second straight morning on Wednesday, Southwest Florida farmers endured freezing temperatures at a time of year when frost is typically rare.

Some farmers further inland reported temperatures dropped below 30 degrees for several hours.

And for the second time, crops experienced minor damage, with initial reports showing, at least for now, there has been no major blow to the industry.

That’s welcome relief for local farmers after a string of winter freezes last January and February cost growers hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses, not to mention the loss in wages to farm workers.

Temperatures are not expected to reach freezing again this week, according to a National Weather Service forecast.

Still, some farmers are concerned this week’s freezes, plus another forecasted cold front swinging into the area next week, could plant the seeds for a catastrophic winter if there is a repeat next year of the cold snaps of January and February.

“If this winter stacks up like the last one, no one is going have a damn thing left,” said Frank Oakes, organic farmer and grocer.

Oakes, whose farm in Golden Gate Estates supplies his Food For Thought grocery store in Naples, kept an eye on the thermometer throughout Tuesday night and into the early morning hours today. He watched as temperatures dipped to 28 degrees and stayed there for several hours.

Surveying the results the following morning in a hooded jacket, Oakes said it was worse than he expected. Though, he noted that he was as prepared as he could have been.

Frost ruined the few strawberries that were beginning to ripen, though, it did not kill whole plants.

Oakes was optimistic that it did not stay cold long enough to harm his soft vegetables, such as squash and tomatoes, but he said it could be a few days before he would know the full extent of the damage.

Further inland, things were a little worse.

Gene McAvoy, a multi-county vegetable agent with the University of Florida/IFAS Extension in Hendry County, reported that freezes again “singed” tomato plants, which essentially wounds, but doesn’t kill the plant. The biggest losses were to sweet corn and green beans, which are especially vulnerable to freezes.

However, McAvoy doubts consumers will notice much of a price change at the produce checkout lines.

Like Oakes, McAvoy said this week’s temperatures will probably mean little unless it’s followed by more cold spells.

He explained that freeze damage to crops is cumulative, with each snap making plants weaker.

“It’s like a death by a thousand cuts,” he said.

McAvoy also warned the freezing weather could also be early trouble for cattle ranchers.

He said the cold has killed grass in local pastures, which could force ranchers to spend as much as $100 per cow on feed to supplement the lost grass.

“That could make a difference between profit and loss,” he said.

After decades of farming, Oakes said those who rely on agriculture to make a living know the score by now.

“Mother nature has the last word,” he said. “Maybe it will be warm this winter. You just never know.”

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