The South's rare white Christmas weekend, which brought subfreezing temperatures all along the Gulf Coast, will be felt by consumers across the country in the form of higher food prices early next year, farm experts predicted Tuesday.
The cold snap devastated the citrus crop in Florida and Texas, destroyed budding strawberries and wiped out whole fields of winter vegetables destined for East Coast supermarkets.
The freeze also created strong demand for fuel at the same time the cold weather shut down refineries and froze natural gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in prices that shot up by record amounts.
On the other hand, Florida's major industry--tourism--scarcely missed a beat, at least once jet liners were able to drop off vacationers at airports unequipped for snow removal.
Along with higher food prices for shoppers early in the new year, there was fear, too, that the cold snap may have a more lasting effect on growers in both Texas and Florida, many of whom were hard hit by two other crop-destroying freezes in the past six years.
"This is the kind of freeze that puts people out of business," observed Freddy Strano, who grows 2,000 acres of tomatoes near the Everglades.
In Texas, state agriculture officials estimated that 70% of the citrus crop and 80% of the winter vegetable crops were destroyed when temperatures plunged into the low 20s and upper teens Saturday and Sunday. Florida wrote off 40% of its $1.4-billion citrus crop, which fuels a juice industry that normally generates $3.5 billion a year for the state's economy.
One immediate result was to delay the start of trading in orange juice futures at the New York Cotton Exchange, where the contracts are bought and sold. Trading limits were imposed, but Bill O'Neill, director of research for Elders Futures, said it was "impossible to tell" how high prices might soar. The most active January contract closed 16.10 cents a pound higher at 153.10 cents.
Also hard hit were unprotected fields of tomatoes, strawberries, eggplants, green peppers, sweet corn, lettuce and cucumbers, destined mainly for markets east of the Mississippi River. Major damage was reported to avocado, lime and mango crops. Florida horticulturists also reported heavy losses of ferns, which will mean a shortage of traditional greenery to accompany bouquets of roses next Valentine's Day.
The freeze will impose a six-week delay in the flow of fresh strawberries to market that was to begin in January. Production gaps of varying length for the other crops will show up in supermarkets until replantings are ready for harvest in spring.
For citrus growers in both states, however, the true measure of the loss will not occur until next month when they will know whether their trees survived. Many hoped that colder-than-normal weather earlier had prepared the groves to withstand the below-freezing temperatures that left much of the South with its first white Christmas in decades.
"If the freeze damages just the oranges, there is a real chance to recover and produce another crop next year," said Rick Bush, spokesman for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation. But previous freezes in 1983 and 1985 killed whole groves of orange and grapefruit trees, and some growers moved from central Florida farther south where their new groves were only now reaching full production.
Tuesday's warming spelled more bad news, since ice-laced oranges can still be made into juice concentrate if they can be harvested before they rot. "Now we prefer that the temperature stay in the 40s and 50s for a month to allow us to get the fruit off the trees," Bush said. "The longer it stays cool, the more that can be processed."
Fruit growers in both Florida and Texas' Rio Grande Valley said temperatures appear to be rising too fast to salvage much. The fresh-fruit market, which offers growers the best prices for their crop, is a total loss, they said.
Loss of winter fruits and vegetables from Florida and Texas will also cause some brief gaps in availability of fresh produce in the West, predicted Jan DeLyer of the Fresh Produce Council in Los Angeles. Eastern crops allow markets to maintain supplies until Mexico reaches peak production in mid-January, followed a few weeks later by California.
But reduced supplies from Florida and Texas will increase demand--and therefore prices--for California and Mexico produce, DeLyer said.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture official said orange juice price increases may be tempered by record stocks being exported by Brazil.
Fuel-price shocks were exacerbated by fears of short supply in the wake of a Christmas Eve explosion at Exxon Corp.'s refinery at Baton Rouge, La., and smaller refinery fires elsewhere. January heating oil contracts spiked 10.74 cents above Friday's level to close at 92.48 cents a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange, a record one-day movement.