Associated Press Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Consumers can expect to pay more for tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, sweet corn and other produce in the coming months thanks to the recent cold snap in Florida.
More than a week of frigid overnight temperatures has devastated crops in south Florida, which is the primary source of fresh vegetables in the United States during the winter months, industry representatives said Tuesday.
And because the cold snap has lingered, growers have had to delay spring planting of some crops, which is expected to also affect availability and prices.
"This is the most devastating freeze we've had since the Christmas of 1989," said J.M. Procacci, CEO of Ag-Mart Produce, one of the state's top tomato growers. The result, he said, has been the loss of most of the crops in the company's fields near Immokalee in southwest Florida.
"We will go into the field and start salvaging in the next three or four weeks," Procacci said.
Terry McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said it will be several days or more before anyone has a handle on the extent of the losses and what they'll mean to growers.
"I don't think there is an agricultural sector that wasn't affected, and I think there is going to be substantial damage in many of these," he said.
Most of Florida's 570,000 acres of citrus likely will have some freeze damage to fruit or leaves, but how much fruit is affected and whether the cold has damaged trees has yet to be determined, said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest citrus growers group.
The Indian River region, along the central part of Florida's Atlantic coast, fared the best, while more damage was expected further inland. Growers on Tuesday tried to salvage as much fruit as possible, because even damaged fruit can be used to make juice. The overwhelming bulk of Florida's citrus crop is processed into juice.
"The uniqueness of this is that it has been a week," Meadows said. "Nobody, none of our old-timers, none of our folks with institutional memory can remember a full week of freezing and subfreezing temperatures."
Central Florida strawberry growers have spent nights running the sprinklers in their fields to form a protective ice layer for the fruit. When it thaws, the soggy fields are going to make the fruit more difficult to harvest, McElroy said.
Not only produce was hurt. Florida's growers of decorative ferns — traditionally used to adorn Valentine's Day flower arrangements — also took a hit, and tropical fish farmers in the Tampa Bay area couldn't keep tanks warm enough to avoid losing large numbers of fish.