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Manatee growers ready for Friday's freeze warning

Growers across the county are bracing for a few hours of below-freezing temperatures expected early Friday.

The National Weather Service has posted a freeze warning for 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. for an eight-county area, including Manatee.

A cold, dry arctic air mass will settle over the west-central and southwest part of the state tonight, according to the weather service. Clear skies, light winds and dry air will produce the perfect recipe for temperatures to drop below freezing. And the farther inland you go, the colder it’ll be.

Manatee residents and growers have already had a winter to remember with extreme below-average temperatures.

Starting Jan. 3, Manatee County had a record 11 straight days that saw the overnight low temperature dip below 40 degrees. The resultant crop damage led to a federal disaster declaration for 60 of Florida’s 67 counties, including Manatee and Sarasota.

Sarasota County has not been included in Friday morning’s freeze warning.

Janet Mixon, co-owner of Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton with her husband Dean, said they’re ready for the area’s latest blast of frigid weather.

“We’re doing fine,” Mixon said. “We’re more worried about our flowers, the tropical gardens in our wedding area. They are a lot more sensitive” than the citrus.

Mixon said the fans will be blowing in the citrus groves to keep air circulating. That keeps frost from forming and the fruit from freezing.

The citrus — Mixon has 50 acres in Bradenton, and another 400 acres leased out in Myakka — usually does OK until temperatures drop into the 20s, she said. When that happens, water is misted on the fruit and trees to provide a coating of ice insulation.

Jack Frost Foam, another type of insulation, is also an option for the tropical gardens, Mixon said.

Employees will monitor the temperatures throughout the night to see what precautions need to be taken throughout the farms, she said.

Mac Carraway, president of SMR Farms in East Manatee, is concerned about 600 acres of orange trees.

“They’ve already been through some extensive cold weather, so there is concern,” Carraway said. “Our production personnel will be out most of the night watching those temperatures and checking the thermometers we have throughout the grove.

“We expect to be OK, but we’re prepared to run water if it looks like the temperatures are going to get beyond what we’re currently expecting.”

The magic number: 28 degrees.

“It’s a rule of thumb that if you have 28 degrees or below for more than 4 hours, you run the risk of having significant freeze damage,” Carraway said. “The trees are resilient, but they’ve already been through a significant amount of stress, so we’re not sure how they’ll react to any more sustained sub-freezing temperatures.”

Carraway estimates SMR Farms has suffered an orange loss of about 15 percent this season, but will have a better gauge by season’s end in May.

A freeze warning is issued when a forecast calls for three or more hours of temperatures between 27 degrees and 32 degrees over a widespread area, the weather service said.

Residents are warned to cover or move cold-sensitive plants indoors, and to bring pets indoors.

Other counties included in the freeze warning include Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough, Polk, Hardee, Highlands and DeSoto.

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