- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Flurries fell yesterday across Florida but it appeared that growers were spared the deep freeze they feared would devastate the nation’s citrus supply.

A serious freeze in Florida would have meant more damage to the nation’s biggest citrus industry, already struggling from years of diseases and hurricanes. Most orange and grapefruit groves are in Central and South Florida, where temperatures hovered in the high 20s and low 30s. Trees can be ruined when temperatures fall to 28 degrees for four hours.

“Mother Nature cut us a break this time and now we can continue to produce the quality citrus crop Florida is known for,” said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of grower advocacy group Florida Citrus Mutual.

Temperatures were not below freezing for long enough to cause widespread damage to Florida’s citrus trees, the group said. In fact, the cold could benefit some growers because it slows down growth and hardens citrus trees.

Growers tried to harvest as many mature fruits and vegetables as possible, and tried to protect plants by spraying them with water that would freeze at 32 degrees and thus insulate the fruit from the colder air outside.

Orange-juice futures for immediate delivery fell 6.2 cents yesterday to settle at $1.4110 a pound on the New York Board of Trade.

Citrus crops were not the only ones at risk in Florida. Around the state, farmers were checking on other crops that Florida produces in the winter for much of the country, including strawberries and vegetables. While citrus was spared, strawberry crops may not have been as fortunate — and farmers likely would not know the extent of damage for a few days.

“I feel confident we’re going to have some damage,” said Carl Grooms, a Plant City strawberry farmer. Temperatures in his fields hovered around 27 degrees for several hours overnight.

The cold temperatures did not appear to damage cabbage, broccoli and other crops growing in north Florida. Those are more resistant to freezes, said Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Temperatures in many areas of northern Florida dropped into the 20s early yesterday, following the 30-degree temperatures some northern parts of the state saw Wednesday. Snow flurries were reported near the Daytona Beach coastline, the first in Florida since 2006.

In Louisiana, strawberry farmers covered their crops in an attempt to protect them. Peach farmers, however, welcomed the cold, which they say benefits their fruit trees during their period of dormancy.

“The more cold weather we have, the better,” said Joe Mitchum, a peach grower outside Ruston, La.

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