Ice cold crops: Prolonged low temperatures bring concern, optimism

MANATEE — The worst cold snap in Southwest Florida in recent memory has had Duette blueberry farmer Felicia Tappan keeping a close eye on her crops around-the-clock.

Her more than 3 acres of blueberries are just budding and have been getting a steady diet of icing by sprinklers the past couple of days as temperatures have plunged below freezing.

On Sunday morning, she could not believe her eyes as she awoke to find every one of her plants covered in ice.

“Every single plant out there was one big icicle,” she said. “It was really something to see.”

And it didn’t get much warmer throughout the day, with the high only reaching 45 in Manatee on Sunday. The coldest of the weather was expected overnight with a deep freeze of temperatures in the mid-20s for several hours, according to the National Weather Service.

It is expected to be a bit warmer today with a high of 54, but the expected freeze overnight Sunday had farmers concerned for their crops.

“Every farmer will be working their irrigation pumps overtime,” Tappan said. “So far there hasn’t been any damage so we are optimistic.”

Citrus farmers in Manatee have also avoided serious damage during the record cold spell, as there has not been any serious reports of frozen fruit, according to Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association Executive Director Barbara Carlton.

“During the cold nights mid-week we did see some leaf burn from the cold, but no serious damage. We are bracing for another cold night, though,” she said Sunday.

Carlton said freezing conditions overnight Sunday are also more of a concern because it is expected to be colder longer and more windy, with the weather service saying wind gusts of up to 29 mph are possible.

“The wind is a concern because it will affect our ability to use our irrigation systems, but the ground is saturated so that hopefully will help warm things up,” Carlton said.

Carlton said citrus growers fear damage when temperatures are lower than 28 degrees for more than four hours. And that was expected to be the case overnight Sunday, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Nicole Carlisle.

“We are looking at temperatures 28 degrees or even lower for at least three hours, maybe more,” Carlisle said. “This is something we have never seen, and probably won’t for quite some time.”

But the forecast that temperatures will be creeping into the 70s by the end of the week brings hope to many. Anna Maria restaurant owner Ed Chiles said the cold temperatures have been terrible for business on the island, as customers have been forced indoors.

“It hurts,” he said. “You just don’t have people coming out in these conditions.”

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