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Local growers learned lesson from last year

MANATEE -- The difference between this year’s cold snaps and the hard freeze last January is that local farmers have learned from their mistakes.

“We had a major loss last year, and we learned from that very well,” Debbie Naeve, retail manager of Mariposa Nursery said. “We did more covering this year and made sure the plants were covered before the temperatures dropped.”

In Bradenton, Mariposa Nursery lost about 40 percent of their plants and Burnett’s Wholesale Nursery threw away 300-400 palm trees last winter.

So far the nursery, that sells everything from interior foliage to big trees, has lost less than 10 percent of their stock.

The nursery is even paying it forward by selling the same type of blankets they use to cover their plants to the public for $1 per foot of the 15-foot wide blanket.

Mike Burnett said his lesson was simple, “I don’t carry as many palms as I did last year. I just cut down on inventory.”

Burnett hasn’t seen any losses but knows he and other farmers are not out of the woods yet.

“You never know how cold it’s going to get,” Burnett said, “It’s been pretty good but January is usually the coldest month.”

Wednesday night saw another around of freeze warnings across the Manatee County but things should start warming up today with lows expected in the 40s along the coast in the morning, according to Richard Rude, a metrologist at the National Weather Service.

It should start warming up during the day with sunny skies and highs in the upper 60s near the coast and lower 70s inland.

Temperatures should remain fairly moderate throughout the weekend with a 40 percent chance of showers Saturday, but the mercury may “drop again Monday night,” Rude said, but should not go below freezing levels.

The cooler weather may have Jack Frost nipping at the noses of Manatee County residents but a foam that shares its name is protecting tropical plants at Mixon Fruit Farms.

Co-owner of the farm Janet Mixon jokes it only takes a short two and a half hours to put Jack Frost foam on their tropical plants. The foam protects plants for eight to 13 hours and dissipates during the day.

“When we had 10 days of cold weather and we pretty much lived here,” Mixon said. “We are hoping it’s not as bad. So far we are doing okay.”

Since they grow citrus trees on the property, Mixon said the cold “sweetens and brightens the color of the orange, so we need the cold. We just don’t need it for too long,” she laughs.

While citrus growers, such as Mixon and strawberry farmers fared well through the last round of cold snaps, tomatoes have taken a major hit, according to Liz Compton, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Agriculture.

“It’ll be a few days before we have numbers or percents in,” said Compton, who pointed out orange growers saw spotted damage but it wasn’t cold enough for any substantial damage.

As for strawberry growers there was some damage but “it will take a while to go and find it,” Compton said. “One thing about strawberries is the cold weather will slow the ripping process. We may have some lag time in retail sale of strawberries.”

As for tomatoes growers, “We’d been fairing reasonably well until last night brought temperatures at or below freezing,” Brown said, adding Palmetto and Ruskin also took a major blow.

The difference between tomatoes and other crops is tomatoes cannot be covered in blankets to keep them warm. Instead, farmers try to increase the moisture level in the soil because as the water cools it gives off heat and the temperature will increase a few degrees.

But wind can disrupt that process making it harder on the farmers.

“Winter last year was a disaster. We have the freeze in January and 45-50 days of extreme weather resulting in a loss,” Brown said. “There are no mistakes to be learned from, unless God sends us bad weather and we continue to try to adjust to those circumstances as they occur. There is a limited amount they can do.”

But he offers words of hope saying “farmers are eternal optimist,” and always wish for the best weather to come.

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency and directed the state Department of Transportation to relax the weight, height, length and width restrictions for commercial vehicles transporting crops to processing sites on Dec.10.

Word on if the order, which is set to expire Friday, will be extended may be announced today. Compton said.