Florida growers add up freeze damage to fruits, vegetables

A sudden severe freeze has hit Florida's citrus, vegetable, and tropical-fish breeding industries hard. They were trying to recoup losses from hard freezes in each of the past three years.

While farmers are still assessing the extent of the damage and rushing to save what they can, this freeze may have done more harm than previous ones for some industries because temperatures dropped so far so fast.

What had been unusually balmy weather the week before Christmas, with temperatures in the 80s, turned to a hard freeze Christmas morning - and colder the day after Christmas, with a reading of 19 degrees F. in Tampa.

''We know there has been extensive damage north of Polk County in the northern third of the citrus belt,'' says Ernie Neef, a spokesman for the Florida Citrus Mutual, an association of grove owners. ''Not only was the fruit frozen, but there undoubtedly was some tree damage there, too.''

Freeze damage also extended through the central third of the citrus belt, he says, and spotty freezes were reported as far south as Homestead, in south Florida.

With temperatures rising into the 70s by Wednesday, growers were rushing to pick as much of the ripe fruit as possible before it rotted. That fruit will be turned into frozen orange concentrate. Fresh fruit sent from the state will be inspected so that freeze-damaged oranges and grapefruit will not reach Northern stores.

Farm labor was at a premium this week and shortages were predicted. But in the long run for this season, farm workers are not expected to fare well, because there will be less work available during normal harvesting times.

The freeze came just as Florida's citrus industry was making a comeback from big freezes in 1981 and '82. Production had dropped from 206 million boxes a year before 1981 to 126 million after the first freeze. This year the forecast had been for 160 million, but Mr. Neef says the amount will undoubtedly be significantly less.

Yet Florida's citrus industry is not dying, he says. The amount of acreage planted in citrus has actually increased in the past three years.

Strawberry farmers around Plant City, which bills itself as the ''winter strawberry capital of the world,'' were hit hard by the freeze.

As temperatures dropped Saturday night, farmers switched on their sprinklers to coat their crop in ice to try to keep it from freezing.

''I don't know what we've lost,'' says Bob Hinton, a Plant City strawberry grower. ''The plants look terrible. I've never seen them look so bad.''

The amount of fresh vegetables reaching Northern markets from Florida may be slim this year, according to the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

''Everyone is in the process of trying to salvage what they can,'' says association spokeswoman Nancy Whipple. ''It does not look as bad as the freezes of 1981 and 1982, because it did not get as far south.

''But on the east coast, the eggplants, squash, peppers, and cucumbers had a good bit of damage. . . .''

Tropical-fish breeders, centered in Hillsborough County, south of Tampa, were checking their pools. ''The temperature in the water dropped very fast, and the fish had no time to acclimate to it,'' says fish breeder Michael Hennessy, who has 250 pools, each filled with thousands of dollars worth of fish. ''One thing is for sure, we have sustained bad losses.''

The National Weather Service gave growers nearly 24 hours' warning, but many owners had let their employees go for the holidays. ''I could have put the plants in houses, but everyone was gone,'' says nurseryman Roger Johnson.

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