Area crops suffer as Bradenton again reaches record-low chill

MANATEE -- Temperatures dropped to 31 degrees at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport on Wednesday, tying an 82-year-old record for the date, according to the National Weather Service.

It was the second day in a row that SRQ had posted or tied a record low: Early Tuesday, temperatures plunged to 27 degrees, easily breaking the record of 32 for Dec. 28, set in 1977, said the weather service’s Logan Johnson.

Unofficial readings early Wednesday at Myakka City in East Manatee were even lower, at 26 degrees, according to a weather service report.

“We were surprised,” farmer Ben King, owner of King Family Farm, along Morgan Johnson Road east of Bradenton. said Wednesday. “Last night was a whole lot colder than anticipated; we were 26 (degrees) here on the Braden River, under freezing for nine hours once again.”

However, King had taken the precaution of covering three acres of his produce with “frost cloth,” designed to protect delicate plants from freezing temperatures.

The covered plants -- tomatoes, peppers and eggplant -- seem to be OK, he said.

“The ones we didn’t cover are all dead to the ground.”

King said he had planted another four or five acres of cold-hardy produce, such as broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce, that also apparently weathered the record cold.

Last January, he had bought the frost cloth at a cost of about $4,000 per acre, but it didn’t work during last winter’s severe freezes.

“This time, it worked,” he said.

From 4-7 a.m. Wednesday, Hugh Taylor recorded temperatures that bottomed out at 26 degrees, probably resulting in some juice loss to his citrus fruit.

However, he said most of the fruit was in “pretty good shape. We did have nine or 10 hours of below-freezing, so 28 degrees is the threshold of where we start getting some damage,” Taylor said.

“It will two to three weeks before we know how much damage, as the orange heals itself,” said Taylor, of Taylor Cattle & Citrus, near Myakka City.

Bob Spencer, co-owner of Palmetto’s West Coast Tomato Co., said he felt fortunate to have some tomatoes left in Immokalee.

Manatee tomato farmers are pretty much between crops right now, he said, since they finished harvesting in late December. The next planting generally does not occur until Jan. 15-20, Spencer said.

“It’s been a roller-coaster the last 3 1/2 weeks, we’re hoping we’re on the downward slide back into stability, and no more exciting dropoffs along the way,” he said.

Conservative figures from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimate previous cold spells cost about $115 million in cash receipts to farmers, with an overall economic impact of about $273 million, said Sarah Criser, deputy press secretary for the department.

“That includes shipping losses, farmers’ losses, supermarket losses, restaurant losses, anything associated with growing or producing or selling fruits and vegetables in the state,” she said.

The figures, however, do not include effects of the freezes of the last few days, she said.

“It’s too early to say what the damage from the last couple nights will be,” said Criser.

Weather service forecasters predicted a much warmer pattern for the next several days. Although moisture passes too far north to allow for any rain chances, an increase in clouds Wednesday night into today will help keep temperatures from dropping all that much tonight, the forecast said.

Lows should only get down into the mid 50s, “quite a dramatic change from this morning’s 20s and lower 30s,” a weather service report stated Wednesday.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.