Southwest Florida growers assess damage from overnight freeze

Icicles cling to oranges in a small grove just after sunrise Wednesday Jan. 4, 2012, in Seffner, Fla. Temperatures in Central Florida dipped into the 20s overnight. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Icicles cling to oranges in a small grove just after sunrise Wednesday Jan. 4, 2012, in Seffner, Fla. Temperatures in Central Florida dipped into the 20s overnight. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Icicles cling to oranges in a small grove just after sunrise Wednesday Jan. 4, 2012, in Seffner, in Central Florida, where temperatures dipped into the 20s overnight. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Icicles cling to oranges in a small grove just after sunrise Wednesday Jan. 4, 2012, in Seffner, in Central Florida, where temperatures dipped into the 20s overnight. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

As the sun rose on Wednesday, growers began to more clearly see the damage from an overnight freeze.

After staying up all night, some growers in Southwest Florida saw more frost than than they expected this morning.

"We were below freezing in most areas at 9 p.m. last night. It's been a long night," said Mike Murphy, the CEO of Cooperative Producers Inc., a large citrus grower with groves in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties.

At the Hendry County grove, temperatures dipped as low as 22 degrees overnight. At 7:30 a.m., some of its coldest spots were still at 23.

"You have some crispy leaves out there now," Murphy said. "They're frozen solid."

Shoots on young trees were bending over, showing signs of damage, too.

As fruit was cut open and inspected at the three groves, some of it was slushy. But none of it was covered in hard ice, a good sign, Murphy said.

"I am unsure how the groves will react to the cold and durations because of the lack of acclimation. But, all in all, I would say the groves came though fairly good," Murphy said.

The freezing temperatures followed months of mostly warm weather.

With only a little wind and clear skies, temperatures dropped fast on Tuesday night. "We were hoping the wind would stay up, but it laid down," Murphy said.

The wind was just strong enough to make the grower's microjet sprinklers ineffective, blowing the protective fog they create away from the trees.

Murphy fears more damage from the cold weather tonight and early tomorrow. Though it's forecasted to be a bit warmer, he's worried about more frost because of clearer skies and even less wind tonight.

He's keeping his eyes on other cold fronts that appear to be headed this way. "It looks like we could have several weeks of this ... so winter is here."

U.S. Sugar Corp. in Clewiston doesn't expect major damage from Tuesday night's freeze.

"It looks like we dodged another bullet. Last night's temperatures ranged from 25 to 31 degrees scattered across our 150,000 acres of sugarcane fields," said Judy Sanchez, a company spokeswoman, in an email. "As expected, the low temperatures hit us in pockets so we do not expect widespread damage to seed cane or mature mill cane."

The grower did see frost in more isolated, low-lying areas, but it was nothing widespread, she reported.

Southern Gardens Citrus, a subsidiary of U.S. Sugar, saw temperatures drop below freezing in all of its groves by 9 p.m. There were some pockets that dropped as low as 26 for several hours.

"We do not expect any major issues with fruit or tree damage, but we will continue to evaluate our trees and fruit over the next few days," Sanchez said.

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