MIAMI — Florida citrus growers braced Wednesday for a cold front that could threaten the state's $2.5-billion agriculture industry, already devastated by past freezes and disease.
The blast of frigid air blowing south from Canada was expected to bring subfreezing weather to northern Florida and near-freezing temperatures to central Florida by this morning.
"This is going to be a situation we have to watch," said Wayne Colin of the National Weather Service in Miami. "It doesn't look like it'll be as cold as the '83 freeze that killed all the citrus crops. But it'll still be plenty cold."
A freeze during Christmas two years ago damaged or destroyed crops ranging from pasture grasses in the Panhandle to vegetables deep within southern Florida, with losses recorded in 66 of the state's 67 counties. Last January, a killer freeze destroyed more than 200,000 acres of citrus, mostly in a 14-county central Florida area.
The two earlier freezes cost citrus growers and other farmers more than $1 billion, and state growers also have seen 17 million plants destroyed in the last 16 months by efforts to eradicate citrus canker, a highly contagious bacterial disease that can ruin trees. Plants suspected of being infected must be burned.
Cold Can Kill
Temperatures below 28 degrees for four hours or more can damage fruit, and temperatures below 20 degrees can kill trees, citrus experts say.
Fred Dunn, owner of Dunn's Citrus Nursery in northwest Orange County, said he was taking several steps to protect his young trees from the cold. Some trees were banked with dirt and others were to be sprayed with water to form a protective ice coating, Dunn said. Heaters would be used to protect other trees in pots.
Lake County was the hardest hit in January's freeze, losing crops on about 100,000 of its 117,000 acres.
Joe Knowles, a north Lake County grower, said he and most other growers on the northern edge of the citrus region have little to lose because they were wiped out by the last two freezes.
"I have a few young trees in the ground that I've banked" with mounds of dirt for insulation, Knowles said. "We just don't have much left to freeze around here, and what little there is is in the warmer areas."
Vegetable growers also are vulnerable to frost and freezing temperatures, although most of the crops in the ground at this time of year in central Florida are hardy winter varieties.
In Volusia County, fern growers said there was little they could do but watch the thermometer and flood their plant beds if needed.
Les Todd, a grower in Pierson, asked, "If God's going to bring that cold down here, what can you do about it?"