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Florida crops appear to escape damage from unusual cold, officials say

 Early variety fruit, like Hamlin oranges, were the most vulnerable when Hurricane Ian blew through citrus groves in south central Florida counties.
Gabriella Paul
WUSF Public Media
Early variety fruit, like Hamlin oranges, were the most vulnerable when Hurricane Ian blew through citrus groves in south central Florida counties.

Florida's citrus, fruit and vegetable crops appear to have escaped any widespread damage from some of the coldest weather in years, officials with state growers associations said Tuesday.

A cloud cover helped protect citrus trees in areas where the thermometer hovered around or below freezing, though there may be pockets of damage, said Matt Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual.

“Indications so far are that the industry fared fairly well," Joyner said in an email. “It appears that we were right on the edge of what could have been a devastating event."

Florida's fruit and vegetable growers also reported no widespread damage to crops, though growers are still assessing the cold weather's impact, said Christina Morton, director of communications for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

“Early reports are showing growers were pretty fortunate considering how cold it got and for how long it hung around," Morton said in an email.

Over the weekend, parts of the Florida Panhandle had wind chills that dipped into the single digits, and interior parts of central Florida had temperatures plunging as low as 27 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2.7 degrees Celsius). At Tampa International Airport, the thermometer dipped below freezing for the first time in almost five years.

Florida is the primary supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables for the rest of the country during the winter, and growers last week harvested as much of their crops as possible ahead of the Arctic blast. In the state’s midsection, where blueberries, strawberries and blackberries are grown, growers used overhead irrigation to spray a protective coat of ice around the fruit.

Florida agriculture already was battered this fall by two hurricanes — Ian and Nicole. Hurricane Ian hit citrus groves hard, as well as the state’s large cattle industry, dairy operations, vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and even hundreds of thousands of bees essential to many growers.

Citrus is big business in Florida, with more than 375,000 acres (152,000 hectares) in the state devoted to oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and the like for an industry valued at more than $6 billion annually. Most Florida oranges are used to make juice, and this season’s drastically lower harvest, combined with the slam from Ian, will press prices upward and force producers to rely even more heavily on California and imported oranges from Latin America.

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