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Florida Agriculture Prepares for a Couple of Cold Nights

With temperatures again expected to dip into the 20s for extended periods Wednesday night and Thursday morning, growers across the state were working around the clock in efforts to minimize the effect on Florida’s $100 billion fruit and vegetable industry.

With below freezing temperatures possible for all but the most southern and coastal regions of the state, growers have accelerated harvests and taken precautionary steps to protect crops too young for market.

Agriculture officials on Wednesday said they experienced only minimal damage from the freeze Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. But the threat of another hard freeze sent prices higher Wednesday as orange juice futures continued to rise to levels not seen since December 2007.

The potential freeze comes on the heels of a citrus crop already reduced by drought earlier in the season.

“Preliminary reports indicate there may be isolated areas that have minor fruit damage however, temperatures do not appear to have dipped low enough for long enough duration to create substantial problems,” said Michael Sparks, executive vice president of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest growers association.

U.S. Sugar Corp. said most of its sugarcane and citrus areas experienced below freezing temperatures for up to 10 hours, with the coldest recorded temperatures at 22 degrees in citrus growing areas and 24 degrees in its cane fields.

Company spokesman Judy Sanchez said U.S. Sugar will accelerate its harvest to minimize crop losses. So far, the company’s citrus holdings have not been affected.

“We seem to have dodged the bullet and pray that it gets no colder through the rest of the week,” Sanchez said.

Florida leads the southeast in farm income. It produces about 75 percent of the oranges grown in the country and accounts for about 40 percent of the world's orange juice supply. It also is the nation’s major supplier of fresh fruit and vegetables during the winter months.

“There is much at stake, both for our state’s farmers and for consumers all across the United States who count on Florida to provide them with fresh domestic produce in the winter,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson.

Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Crist spoke with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday. The two discussed the impact of the cold weather on Florida's agricultural community and the expected need to move products ahead of the traditional schedule, according to Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey.

Crist on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in anticipation of freezing temperatures expected to visit the state over the next several days. By executive order, the governor relaxed weight restrictions on fruit and vegetable hauling vehicles.

Temperatures were expected to rise slightly Thursday before again plummeting into the low 20s over the weekend.

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