Florida fears cold has done major damage to fruit crops

FROSTPROOF, Fla. —Florida growers are scrambling to assess damage and pick as many oranges as possible from thousands of acres of citrus groves beset by the cold.

Freezing temperatures have been plaguing the state for a week, with several areas approaching or breaking records Monday.

The cold is extremely tough on the state's fruit and vegetable growers, with crops such as citrus trees and sugar cane suffering damage when exposed to temperatures below 28 degrees for more than 4 hours.

Overall crop damage tallies won't be available for days or weeks. But the state Department of Agriculture said there has been "significant crop damage" throughout the state, from tropical fish farms near Tampa to the ferns grown in Volusia for filler in Valentine's Day bouquets. Strawberries were also affected.

"Temperatures have been ridiculous cold for South Florida," said Eric Hopkins, vice president of Hundley Farms Inc. in Belle Glade on the lake's southern edge. He estimated his farm would lose about $750,000 in green beans and sweet corn because of the cold.

"We survived a couple of the nights, but this weekend sort of finished us off as far as the sweet corn and green beans go," he added.

The state's largest citrus grower's group has been receiving reports of frozen fruit and damage to trees' leaves and branches, but it's not clear yet if those trees have suffered long-term damage. Frozen fruit must be rushed to a processing plant, or the flavor could be ruined.

Complicating efforts to assess the damage is "the sheer number of cold days we had in a row. I can't remember anything like it," said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual.

The state's last "impact freeze" — a freeze so severe that it annihilates entire citrus groves around the state, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage — happened in 1989. It was only the fifth since 1835. It will take at least a month to determine whether this year's cold snap will be classified as another, Citrus Mutual spokesman Andrew Meadows said.

U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, said he is asking the USDA to quickly finish a crop damage assessment so the federal government can expedite a disaster declaration, which would help farmers.