Manatee County farmers prepare for freeze

srocco@bradenton.comJanuary 6, 2014 

MANATEE -- As Manatee County enters a two-day freeze watch starting Monday night and ending Wednesday afternoon, area farmers are gearing up to protect their crops from the bitter cold.

Temperatures dipped into the 40s Monday night and are expected to decrease Tuesday before a warmup Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

Wish Farms, based in Hillsborough County, has an 180-acre organic strawberry farm in Duette. If temperatures fall below 32 degrees, farmers will activate igloo-like ice coverings to shield the berries.

"To prepare for the situation

tonight, we're making sure all the units are running, that the sprinkler heads are operating and functional, so tonight if it's 2 a.m. and the temperature drops to 31 degrees, we'll turn the water on, form an ice igloo over the plants and wait until the temperature goes above 32," said sales manager Chuck Hollenkamp.

Farmers won't get much sleep. They'll monitor temperatures all night long, he added.

Geraldson Community Farm in Bradenton will take measures to protect its tomato and eggplant crops.

"We're monitoring the weather currently and we will probably be covering our tomatoes this afternoon. The tomatoes and eggplant are the main things we're concerned about now," said farm manager Claudie Babineaux.

Gary Reeder, a grower at West Coast Tomato in Palmetto and president of the Manatee County Farm Bureau, said he has nothing at stake this time.

"Thank the Lord we're all done with our crop for the fall so we don't have anything growing right now. We're just laying down plastic, but it's going to be too cold and windy to lay plastic for now, so we're just kind of shut down here," he said.

KMK Farms in Arcadia, a small farm just outside of Manatee, is putting "frost cloths" on its fruit and vegetable trees. The blueberries, their main crop, will benefit from the freeze.

"The blueberries really like to be dormant. They're able to grow better in the cold," said co-owner Karen Martin.

Farmers said they hope the wind will help as constant gusts can keep temperatures from dropping low.

The National Weather Service issued a wind chill advisory from 11 p.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Tuesday. Wind chill values are expected to fall between 21 and 35 degrees.

"In the event the temperature drops below freezing, then you don't want wind, because the wind will blow water everywhere and you won't get good even coverage," Hollenkamp said of the igloo-like coverings that will spray water.

The freeze will end Wednesday afternoon as temperatures return to the 70s, the National Weather Service said.

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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