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Florida Growers Prepare for Freezing Temperatures Thursday Night

Justin Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images

An arctic cold front is expected to bring freezing temperatures to much of Florida overnight Thursday.  Vegetable and citrus growers in the state are working to protect their crops against damage. 

The National Weather Service has issued a Freeze Watch overnight for all inland regions of Florida as far South as Collier and Hendry Counties and that’s got the state’s agriculture industry anxious.  Gene McAvoy is the regional vegetable extension agent for Southwest Florida with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.  He said growers are covering low-growing crops with nylon-like freeze cloths to protect against damage.

“The other thing they do is run water in their fields,” said McAvoy.  “And that water, as it evaporates, gives off heat and that will help protect their crops and they can often times gain two or three degrees in that manner.

Citrus groves are slightly more resistant to cold temperature damage than low-growing fruits and vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes, watermelon, peppers, cucumbers and squash.  It usually takes temperatures dropping to 28 degrees for four hours or longer to cause significant damage, but the vulnerable flowers that will form next year’s fruits are already in bloom. That means that a deep freeze could hurt next year’s citrus harvest.

Vegetable growers have already seen minor damage with cold weather this week.  “What it does is marginally reduce yields in the long term and it also results in the grower incurring higher costs because what happens when you get these cold winds is it damages young leaves,” said McAvoy.  “They need to apply additional fungicides to protect those leaves from becoming infected by different fungal diseases so it increases your cost of production.”

McAvoy says that could tighten supplies and result in slightly higher produce prices for consumers.  During the winter months, Florida provides about 70% of the vegetables consumed in the Eastern U.S. 

“We’re feeding 150 million people between Miami and Chicago so it’s an important industry,” said McAvoy.  “I’m just praying for our farmers that they come through this relatively unscathed.”