Southwest Florida farmers brace for more freezing temperatures tonight

Southwest Florida braced Monday for freezing temperatures overnight that could damage crops already battered by an unusually cold December.

The National Weather Service issued a freeze warning for most of South Florida, and forecasters predicted that temperatures would dip to 33 degrees in Naples, 28 degrees in Immokalee and 25 degrees in LaBelle in Hendry County.

Winds blowing down the Florida peninsula from the north were expected to keep skies clear, allowing the temperatures to drop further, forecasters said.

Growers began preparations for the plunge on Sunday, raising water levels in vegetable fields and citrus groves to help insulate crops from damage.

“Sometimes that’s all you need is a couple degrees,” said Brooks Ferguson, irrigation manager for Ranch One Cooperative south of Immokalee.

Ferguson was out Monday making sure the 3,000-acre grove’s irrigation system would be in top shape when workers fire it up for further insurance against the cold when the thermometer reaches 36 degrees Monday night.

The rule of thumb is that citrus cannot withstand temperatures of 28 degrees or lower for more than four hours.

That’s what the National Weather Service defines as a hard freeze, and forecasters added a hard freeze warning to their forecast for Glades and Hendry counties Monday afternoon.

“For citrus in Immokalee, this shouldn’t be too bad, but it won’t be good,” Barron Collier Cos. grove manager Bob Newsome said.

Freezes earlier this month already have damaged new shoots and leaves that are most sensitive to cold, he said.

This winter’s early freezes could be a double whammy for citrus industry because damaged trees might not get a good bloom next spring to set next winter’s crop, said Mongi Zekri, Southwest Florida citrus agent for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences.

“It’s not just affecting this season’s crop,” he said.

Frozen fruit can’t be sold on the fresh orange market and so has to be sold at less of a profit to juice processors, Zekri said.

But if the oranges are not picked quickly after a freeze, they will dry out and produce less juice.

The problem is that 75 percent of this year’s crop still is on the trees, and most of it won’t be mature and ready for harvesting until at least February, he said.

Vegetable crops withered by cold weather already this month are less able to defend against a freeze, said Gene McAvoy, IFAS vegetable agent.

He said preliminary figures put the damage at $200 million from a string of freezing nights that peaked Dec. 14. That includes lost crops, lost wages of pickers and lost revenue of haulers.

“Some of our farmers are financially at the end,” McAvoy said. “This will put some of them out of business.”

At Pacific Tomato Growers in Immokalee, hundreds of workers were scrambling Monday to cover as many young plants as possible with hay and compost to ward off the freeze’s effects, manager Miguel Talavera said.

Crews were focusing on low-lying fields that historically get coldest, Talavera said.

“Cold air is just like water,” he said. “It runs downhill.”

Freeze preparations were underway Monday closer to the coast too.

At Driftwood Garden Center in Naples, workers were covering hearty plants and moving more sensitive plants indoors.

Impatiens, begonias and vegetables stay outside; orchids and crotons go inside, said Craig Hazelett, whose family owns Driftwood.

“We just pack everything in as close as we can,” he said.

Golfers with early tee times Tuesday morning might have to have some patience while managers wait for any frost to thaw.

Walking or driving across frosted greens and fairways can damage the blades of grass, Olde Florida Golf Club operations director Darren Davis.

Davis said his crews use a spray that makes water run off blades of grass, keeping dew from becoming frost, but it’s too expensive to treat the whole course.

“We let nature takes its toll and get the frost off as soon as we can,” Davis said.

Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats

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