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Manatee’s winter chill endures

Manatee’s winter to remember — or forget — is in the midst of its latest chapter.

Growers and residents across the county braced early this morning for a few hours of below-freezing temperatures.

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

A cold, dry arctic air mass settled over the west-central and southwest part of the state Thursday night, according to the weather service. Clear skies, light winds and dry air were forecast to produce the perfect recipe for temperatures to drop below freezing. And the farther inland, the colder it was forecast to be.

The numbing temperatures are nothing new for Manatee this winter.

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

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

“We’re doing fine,” Mixon told the Herald by phone Thursday afternoon. “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 fans were set to blow in the citrus groves to keep the air circulating, frost from forming and fruit from freezing.

The citrus — Mixon has 50 acres in Bradenton and another 400 acres leased out in Myakka — usually does OK until temperatures hit 28 degrees, 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 were going to monitor the temperatures throughout the night to see what precautions would be needed to be taken throughout the farm, she said.

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

“They’ve already been through some extensive cold weather, so there is concern,” Carraway said early Thursday evening. “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.”

Again, that magic number: 28 degrees.

“It’s a rule of thumb that if you have 28 degrees or below for more than four 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.

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

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.

Today’s Bradenton forecast calls for sunny skies with a high temperature around 60 degrees and low tonight around 40 degrees, the weather service said.

There’s a 50 percent chance of showers on Saturday with a high of 61 degrees and a low of 45 degrees.

Temperatures are expected to hit the mid-to-upper-60s come Sunday and Monday.

— Herald archives contributed to this report.