Florida crops appear to have escaped unseasonably cold

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s citrus, fruit and vegetable crops appear to have escaped any widespread damage from the coldest weather in years, officials with the state growers association said Tuesday.

Matt Joyner, chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual, said the clouds helped protect citrus trees in areas where thermometers hovered near or below freezing, though some damage was possible.

“Indications so far are that the industry is doing pretty well,” Joyner said in an email. “It appears we are on the brink of what could be a devastating event.”

Fruit and vegetable growers in Florida also reported no widespread crop damage, although growers were still assessing the impact of the cold weather, said Christina Morton, communications director for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

“Early reports suggest growers have been very lucky given how cold it is and how long it’s going to last,” Morton said in an email.

Parts of the Florida Panhandle saw single-digit wind chills over the weekend, with temperatures in inland central Florida dropping to 27 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2.7 degrees Celsius). At Tampa International Airport, thermometers dropped below freezing for the first time in nearly five years.

Florida is a major supplier of winter fresh fruits and vegetables to the rest of the country, and growers last week harvested as much of their crop as possible ahead of an arctic storm. In the middle of the state, where blueberries, strawberries and blackberries are grown, growers use overhead irrigation to spray a protective layer of ice around the fruit.

Florida agriculture has already been hit hard by two hurricanes this fall—Ian and Nicole. Hurricane Ian devastated citrus groves, as well as the state’s large cattle industry, dairy operations, vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers, and even hundreds of thousands of bees that are essential to many growers.

Citrus is a big industry in Florida, with more than 375,000 acres of land in the state growing oranges, grapefruits, tangerines and more, and the industry is worth more than $6 billion a year. Most Florida oranges are used for juicing, and a sharply reduced harvest this season, combined with Ian’s slamming, will drive prices up and force producers to rely even more on imported oranges from California and Latin America.