VIDEO: Freeze damages crops overnight in Southwest Florida

Video from NBC-2

The damage isn’t done.

Freezing temperatures and frost early Wednesday morning hurt vegetable crops in Southwest Florida.

“Vegetables were hit pretty good. Not catastrophic,” said Gene McAvoy, a multi-county vegetable agent with the University of Florida/IFAS Extension in Hendry County.

It’s far from over.

Growers expect to see more damage this morning based on the forecast for more frigid weather overnight.

Heading into the weekend, the picture looks more worrisome with another reinforcing Arctic blast headed this way. Temperatures are expected to get even colder across Florida on Saturday and Sunday, dropping back into the 20s in some parts of the state after a slight warm-up.

“We are holding our breath all the way through the weekend,” said Wes Roan, who works in quality control and pest management for Six L’s, a major tomato and pepper grower based in Immokalee.

On Wednesday morning, the grower reported damage from a light frost on fields in Immokalee and Estero. Acreage in Naples did better, Roan said.

“Right now it’s minimal,” he said of the damage. “It’s only on older crops that were standing tall.”

Younger plants are in better shape because they are closer to the ground, which keeps them warmer.

Picking went into overdrive this week as growers looked to get all the fruit they could out of the fields and into safety.

“We are not able to cover much,” Roan said. “Stakes make it a problem.”

Growers are keeping fields as wet as possible so they’ll stay warmer.

“Sunday and Monday are going to be even colder. So we’ve got a long way to go,” Roan said.

On Wednesday morning, McAvoy estimated that vegetable losses in Southwest Florida were already in the tens of millions of dollars.

“How many tens of millions, 20 or 50, I couldn’t say right now,” McAvoy said. “Anything north of the Caloosahatchee River was wiped out. They got 26 degrees and lower up that way.”

It could have been much worse if growers hadn’t prepared for the unusually cold weather.

“A lot of people had anticipated this,” McAvoy said. “A lot of people had covered their crops.”

Some crops that weren’t covered were wiped out entirely.

“Some of the squash that was uncovered is gone. It’s not with us anymore,” McAvoy said.

He said there was at least $250 million worth of vegetables in the ground as freezing temperatures lingered early Wednesday. Acreage is actually up 5 to 6 percent this year in the region, with more smaller growers getting into the business.

“Collier County actually did a lot better than Hendry County,” McAvoy said. “As you go south, it gets warmer.”

The Immokalee area, he said, was hit pretty hard Wednesday morning. Growers can’t protect everything; not only would it be too expensive, but some plants are too difficult to cover.

Mike Clevenger, a co-owner of Farmer Mike’s in Bonita Springs, said his cucumbers and squash were virtually wiped out early Wednesday. His specialty peppers, which include jalapenos and serranos, also took a hit, but the damage wasn’t as bad.

He has crops in Bonita Springs, where he operates a U-Pick, and near Immokalee.

“We are more worried about surviving Saturday and Sunday now,” Clevenger said.

Frank Oakes, a grower and owner of Food & Thought, an organic grocery store in Naples, said the cold killed some of his papaya and banana trees. “They already bit the dust,” Oakes said.

His sunflowers, which he sold at his store, are gone.

His kale, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage were safe. His strawberries plants still looked pretty good after he was able to get the frost washed off the berries early Wednesday morning.

He has no cucumbers, zucchini, squash or green beans in the ground because he knows how sensitive they can be to the cold.

“I’ve learned over the years not to expose myself during January and February with any more tender plants than I dare,” Oakes said.

He’s most concerned about Sunday morning, when temperatures could be in the mid-20s at his farm, based on the forecast.

“I know these plants are enduring an awful lot every single night. When Sunday morning comes, I think it’s going to be a knock-out punch for a lot of farmers,” Oakes said.

Mexico, the U.S.’s biggest competitor for winter vegetables, is also getting lambasted with cold weather, which will curb its production. In another month, prices at the checkout counter will be higher as a result of supplies being down from both the U.S. and Mexico.

“You are going to see some crazy, crazy prices,” Oakes said.

Citrus has done better because it can withstand colder temperatures for longer. But that doesn’t mean local growers aren’t worried with chillier weather headed this way.

Citrus growers in Southwest Florida saw temperatures fall into the 20s in some pockets of their groves on Wednesday morning.

Mike Murphy, CEO of Cooperative Producers Inc., a citrus grower with 7,400 acres in Hendry, Collier and Lee counties, said he’s most concerned about the younger trees in his groves that have replaced older ones killed by greening, a fatal disease.

Last year, the grower lost 10 percent of its young trees because of cold weather in January and February, he said.

“We’re taking it one day at a time now,” Murphy said.

In other parts of the state, citrus growers reported minimal damage Wednesday morning. Some fruit dropped and there was leaf damage. A few growers saw ice when they cut into fruit, according to a report by Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest growers’ representative.

In the five-county region, there’s about 130,000 acres of citrus, said Ron Hamel, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association.

“Everyone is gearing up for the weekend,” he said.

U.S. Sugar Corp. in Clewiston saw below freezing temperatures in the early morning hours Wednesday at its citrus groves and sugarcane fields.

“Thus far, we seem to have dodged the bullet and pray that it gets no colder through the rest of the week,” said company spokeswoman Judy Sanchez.

The grower has 150,000 acres of sugarcane in Palm Beach, Glades and Hendry counties and 21,000 acres of active citrus groves, primarily in Hendry County.

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

Also, posted at NBC-2.com earlier today:

Many of us woke up to record low temperatures Wednesday morning but those most concerned with the lengthy cold snap were local farmers.

Growers were hoping freeze cloths would help prevent frost from forming on crops, but even their most extreme measures couldn't compete with the freezing temperatures.

At the Oakes Farm in Collier County temperatures dropped to about 30 degrees, leaving anything from beans to peppers to bananas completely ruined. Owner Frank Oakes said it's the worst damage he's seen in 20 years.

Read NBC-2’s report

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Comments » 1

EdFoster writes:

“As you go south, it gets warmer.” Brilliant statement!

Where is Al Gore when we need him?

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