Florida growers reel under hard freeze

For the fourth time in five years, Florida citrus grove owners this week awoke to icicles hanging from their oranges, sending shock waves through an industry already fighting a plant disease and stiff foreign competition. Temperatures plunged to 20 degrees F. Monday and 17 degrees F. Tuesday in Polk County, the heart of the citrus belt, staying low long enough to damage citrus trees throughout the northern part of Florida's citrus belt and kill fruit throughout central Florida.

Citrus officials were calling it the freeze of the century, and it was expected to do more damage than the freeze that hit on Christmas Day, 1983. That year's had been the freeze of the century. This year's cold snap hit the entire citrus belt.

Grove owners, some in tears and others with shocked looks on their faces, fought through the night to keep their groves warm with heaters, fans, or water.

Some were talking about the annihilation of the citrus industry throughout many Florida counties, where oranges and grapefruit had been growing for generations.

``It used to be that these freezes came along once a decade,'' said one Hillsborough County grove owner. ``But now they're coming every year. It makes you wonder if another ice age isn't upon us.''

The freeze also damaged strawberry and vegetable crops in the state, but those are replanted every year. They do not need the six or seven years of growth that a citrus tree requires to bear fruit.

The 1983 freeze killed a large percentage of citrus trees through the northern part of Florida's citrus belt, and farmers there had not begun to recover from those losses when this week's frigid weather struck, said Earl Wells, a spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an association of 13,000 grove owners.

The 1983 freeze cost the industry $1.5 billion.

This year, 120,000 fewer acres were planted with citrus trees than were planted before the 1983 freeze, he said, when Florida was covered with more than 800,000 acres of groves.

This week temperatures cold enough to damage trees dipped as far south as Immokalee, and small trees that had been planted to replace those killed in 1983 shriveled in the cold.

``These freezes have been frustrating to farmers in the northern part of the citrus belt,'' Mr. Wells said.

``It's made a lot of them take notice of all the problems hitting them. They will have to come to grips with whether they think they can remain in the business. There's going to be a lot of soul searching.''

He said as many as 50 percent of the small growers -- those with 25 acres or less -- plan to get out of the business. But most of the large growers have said they will replant.

``Whether their attitudes change after this freeze depends on how severe the damage has been,'' Wells said.

The freezes have accelerated the southern migration of the citrus industry. Groves were centered in Polk County and ranged as far north as Lake and Volutia Counties.

But now most of the groves in Lake and Volutia Counties are dead sticks of wood, and growers have found that citrus can thrive on the flat plain of southern Florida around Lake Okeechobee and south of Vero Beach on the East coast, and south of Bradenton on the West coast.

Growers struggling to recover from the 1983 freeze were hampered by a disease known as citrus canker, which was discovered in some of the nurseries that were growing young trees to replace the frozen stock.

Florida's beleaguered citrus growers are also coming under increased pressure from foreign competition, especially from groves that have reached maturity in Brazil where freezes are unknown.

Last year, for the first time, Brazil exceeded Florida in providing the world's citrus crop, and some Caribbean countries, especially Cuba, are considering planting citrus.

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