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Freeze hits grocery shelves: Fresh fruit, veggie shortages, high prices face shoppers

MANATEE -- David O’Brien is getting used to seeing damaged vegetables. The salesman for C&D Fruit and Vegetable in Manatee sees hundreds of acres of strawberries, cucumbers, beans and squash at the farm destroyed by the recent cold weather.

The result of all the produce destruction is being felt across the state as grocery shoppers are finding fresh vegetables in short supply along with soaring prices.

Arching her eyebrows at prices along the produce aisle, Ilene Ellman decided to alter her shopping routine.

Instead of buying fresh corn -- four ears for $4.99 -- she picked up a $1.79 bag of frozen kernels. She also tore open a nearly 2-pound bag of green beans, marked at $5.65, and scooped out half.

“I love fresh vegetables but I draw the line at five bucks,” said Ellman, outside a Publix grocery store this week in Hollywood.

The Florida Department of Agriculture estimates that farmers statewide lost $273 million during the string of December freezes. Now the cold spell is costing consumers.

O’Brien estimates about 60 percent of Manatee’s vegetable crop was damaged in the freezes.

“There are still peppers available, beans have been hit and miss, but the quality is off and the prices are up,” he said. “The strawberry yields are down but they are coming back.”

Market prices for sweet corn -- among the hardest-hit crops -- have doubled since before the freeze. Green beans, also hammered, have tripled from cut-rate pre-holiday prices.

Though prices vary from store to store, yellow squash, zucchini, cucumbers, bell peppers, eggplants and some lettuces also have jumped 25 percent or more.

Publix and Sweetbay officials report supplies remain limited for corn and tomatoes through March when the new crops are expected to create more volume and lower cost. Several chains have run out of beans, squash and peppers.

“Volume is expected to pick up for squash as new blooms begin producing,” said Shannon Patten, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets. “Much of the bean crop had to be replanted and is expected to start producing in early February. The same is true for the peppers. Supplies will continue to improve as we move forward.”

Farmers and grocers expect them to continue to rise, though not as steeply, over coming weeks until replanted crops or imports come in.

George Caldwell, director of purchasing at Global Organics Specialty Source, a Manatee County-based organic supply company, saw prices for tomatoes and green and yellow squash increase 25-40 percent. For Florida tomatoes, which were hit hardest, prices began to creep up before the cold snap even hit.

“As soon as they knew they were going to lose those crops, tomato prices shot up,” Caldwell said. “And yellow and green squash (prices) rose to levels that are rarely seen. People want to make sure it’s on the shelves at various grocery stores, so the stores have to be willing to pay more to make sure that spot is not empty.”

For farmers, it was the second costly freeze in less than a year. A lengthy frigid spell last January was even more damaging, wiping out entire fields. The damage this time around was substantial, but most farmers still had something left to harvest.

To help ease this year’s pain, Gov. Rick Scott has extended an emergency order lifting weight restrictions on trucks transporting freeze-threatened crops through Jan 14.

Scott issued the executive order Friday, when a previous extension was set to expire.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist first relaxed the restriction Dec. 10 and extended the order twice.

In a statement issued with his order Friday, Scott said the declaration will ensure that timely precautions are taken to protect Florida’s crops from freezing temperatures throughout much of the state.

Immokalee, where most of the fruit is now grown in Florida, has been another hard-hit area.

C&D, which also has fields in Immokalee, lost quite a few crops there, O’Brien said.

Nicole LeBeau, a spokeswoman for Sweetbay Supermarket, said retail price increases for produce from the end of November to now show spiraling prices -- $2.49 for a pound of fresh green beans, up from $1.99; squash at $2.29 each, up from $1.69; and cucumbers 89 cents each, up from 69 cents.

“Prices have gone up on much of the Florida produce suffered in the freeze,” LeBeau said. “What we can’t get locally, we will get from other countries but not risk quality.”

The price increases are largely confined to Florida-grown produce, so staples like apples, bananas and potatoes remain stable. Some of the state’s most important crops -- including citrus and strawberries -- weathered the cold fairly well, said Joshua Craft, assistant director of agricultural policy for the Florida Farm Bureau.

Most of Florida’s orange crop is squeezed for juice, he said, and growers were able to process damaged fruit. Strawberries survived well enough that Publix has them on sale -- $2.99 a pound, down $2.

“Although production has been slowed by a very cold December month, there is still fruit on the plants and a rebound is expected within weeks,” Patten said.

“We are working side by side with our local farmers to ensure that we are providing our customers with the best produce that’s available.”

-- Herald Business Editor Jennifer Rich and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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