Farmers hold their breath: Temperatures as low as 29 expected as cold front lumbers in

MANATEE -- Farmers are hoping that the tens of thousands of dollars in crops in eastern Manatee County and across the state survived the first below-freezing temperatures of the winter today.

Temperatures of 29 degrees -- dropping to between 20 to 25 degrees with the wind chill -- were expected in the eastern parts of Manatee County from 1 a.m. today through 8 a.m. due to a cold front from the Great Lakes that was pushed off course and shoved south by a giant blocking system, said meteorologist Dan Noah of the National Weather Service in Ruskin.

A freeze watch was issued for many parts of Florida on Monday, the Associated Press reported. The arrival of a “modified Arctic air mass” or cold air from the North, is expected to lower temps to the mid- to upper-20s in the interior parts of the state today and Wednesday, the Associated Press reported. Temperatures were expected to hit 20 degrees in Gainesville, Noah said.

Manatee County residents and tourists who live along the coast or in the west and mid part of the county will see a low around 36 today and a high of 59, made colder by roughly 20 mph winds.

Crop damage projections may be available later today, but Noah and others felt there was a definite threat to crops because freezing temperatures were forecast for more than six straight hours.

“Those who have vegetable crops are going to be damaged quite severe if it stays under freezing for six hours,” said Manatee County farmer Ben King, who was busy covering his tomato plants at 5 p.m. Monday.

King spoke to his friend, Tommy O’Brien, president of C&D Fruit & Vegetable on State Road 64 and O’Brien told him they were preparing to flood their acres of strawberries with water to form a protective capsule of ice around the berries.

“Tommy and his crew were in good spirits,” King said. “They are ready. They have full diesel tanks and sprinklers ready to go.”

The agriculture and aquaculture expected to be at risk the most are tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, citrus and fish raised in fish farms. Cabbage, potatoes and blueberries, also in the field, were expected to weather the assault better, King said.

The fall tomato crop, which has been a strong one, is continually harvested from Oct. 20 to Dec. 20, so some fruit still remains in the fields.

“Tomatoes and peppers are absolutely the biggest worries,” King said. “The tomato can be damaged by the cold. The first thing to go is the top of the plant and the tender foliage. But when it damages the skin, the fruit is totally unmarketable. They have to throw a lot away.”

Local lows close to record

The normal temperatures for this time of year in Manatee County are a low of 54 and a high of 76.

“We are about 20 degrees below normal,” Noah said.

The record low for the metro areas of Bradenton and Sarasota for early December is 30 degrees in 1937, Noah said.

Noah doesn’t expect to see that temperature at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport today but he is expecting 36 degrees.

“I don’t think the official record will be broken but it will be chilly,” Noah said.

The forecast for the next few days is a low of 37 and a high of 59 on Wednesday, 37 and 62 on Thursday and 41 and 68 on Friday, as things finally begin to warm.

Saturday promises a warming trend with the lows in the 50s and a high of 74, close to normal temperatures, Noah said.

Sunday slips to 61 and 72 because another front moves in.

“We will warm up to near normal for Saturday and Sunday but another cold front is coming through Sunday with our next chance of rain,” Noah said. “Then we get back to near record cold for the first half of next week.”

But there is a payback for all this teeth-chattering.

“The good news is that because of this blocking feature in the wind currents, we should see normal temperatures for Christmas,” Noah said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.

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