VIDEO/PHOTOS: Growers can't chill out just yet with colder weather ahead

Video from NBC-2

Like a blanket, clouds kept local crops warmer than expected Tuesday morning.

Growers in Southwest Florida saw no major damage. They hoped to tell the same story this morning after facing yet another night of cold weather brought by an Arctic blast.

With the cold continuing through the weekend, growers will stay on guard and expect to get very little sleep over the next five days.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Gene McAvoy, a multi-county vegetable agent for the University of Florida/IFAS Extension.

After surveying crops Tuesday, he said they were holding up well.

“We have been really lucky. The clouds keep coming in off the Gulf every night,” he said.

He does expect the prolonged cold weather to curb production, even if there is no frost damage. Tomato and pepper plants won’t make as much fruit and some fruit may come out misshapen because bees aren’t pollinating the way they do in warmer weather, he said.

As of Tuesday, the lowest temperature seen in the Immokalee area over the past week was 37, McAvoy said.

Gov. Charlie Crist signed an emergency order on Tuesday to deal with the potential threat to the state’s agricultural industry. The order relaxes the normal restrictions on transporting crops. It also gives the state’s Division of Emergency Management and other agencies the authority to provide growers with assistance.

Growers are keeping crops damp, spraying vapor guard on plants and putting out frost covers where possible for protection. They’ve also picked as much produce as they can to get it into storage where it’s safe.

“Growers really need a good year,” McAvoy said. “So we really don’t want any disasters.”

The last three years have been rough for growers, who have faced low prices and shrinking demand. Growers continue to fight pests and devastating diseases. Production costs have been on the rise, cutting into profits.

“Right now agriculture is probably one of the strongest economic activities going on,” McAvoy said.

Mongi Zekri, a multi-county citrus agent for the UF/IFAS Extension, said the coldest temperatures Tuesday morning came at about 1:30 a.m. and they warmed up from there.

“Usually the lowest temperature will be around sunrise,” he said.

He said citrus growers are watering more than usual and pumping water into ditches and swales to keep their soil wet and warm. “It is going to be costly,” Zekri said.

On a bright note, he said citrus growers are seeing much better prices this year. Last year, they got 80 to 85 cents per pound solids, which roughly equates to about a gallon of orange juice. This year, the minimum has been about $1.20.

With threats of a freeze, prices have edged up to $1.40, Zekri said. “It may even go up to $1.50 for Valencias this coming spring,” he said.

The biggest threat to citrus growers is not a freeze but a deadly disease called greening, that kills trees. Growers are spraying pesticides to try to keep down the population of psyllids, the tiny insects that so efficiently spread the disease.

“You want to kill them before they have the chance to lay their eggs on new spring flush, which will come in February and March,” Zekri said.

For citrus to see damage, temperatures have to fall below 28 degrees for four hours.

“The trees have been acclimating to the cold weather, which is good,” Zekri said.

Elsewhere in the state, other growers reported no major damage as of Tuesday afternoon.

“So far, so good,” said Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

She said growers were worried about what would happen overnight into today, with the lows expected to drop into the 20s in some parts of the state.

“It’s going to be a long night for growers,” Lochridge said. “We’ll see what the morning brings.”

Looking to the weekend, temperatures could drop into the 20s again in some inland areas of Florida, giving growers more worries.

“It’s going to be cold again,” Lochridge said. “So we’re not finished yet.”

Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden

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