Florida growers tally strawberry, tomato losses

01/14/2008 12:00:00 AM
Doug Ohlemeier


Jim Monteith, sales manager for Pacific Collier Fresh Co., Immokalee, Fla., views some bell peppers south of Immokalee after a freeze in early January sent temperatures into the low to mid-20s in central and south Florida.

(Jan. 14) Fla. — Florida strawberries and tomatoes suffered the heaviest damage after an early January freeze struck the state’s central and southern growing regions, with the Immokalee tomato crop seeing a possible 70% loss.

In the week after the Jan. 3 freeze — which sent freezing winds whipping through the fields and burning or scarring fruit — growers were busy assessing damages.

“It looks like some of our Immokalee (tomatoes) will be a total loss,” said Jaime Weisinger, director of sales and purchasing for Custom Pak, a part of Six L’s Packing Co. Inc., said Jan. 8.

“We may be able to salvage some out of them, but it could be a total loss,” he said. “It wasn’t just the cold that hurt everything. It was the wind as well. When it’s that cold and you get the wind on the bushes, it really has an adverse affect on them.”

Florida is the major winter U.S. supplier of strawberries and tomatoes.

IMMOKALEE, PLANT CITY HIT HARDER

Damages were most significant in the Immokalee and Plant City areas, growers reported. Temperatures ranged from the low to mid-20s in Plant City and the high 20s in the Immokalee and Devil’s Garden growing regions.

Immokalee may have lost as much as 60% to 70% of the tomatoes the region had planned to harvest, Weisinger said. The state’s overall tomato crop likely suffered 20% losses, he said.

Weisinger and Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said they expect a huge bloom drop to manifest itself in mid-February after a dehydrating wind beat up the plants’ foliage.

Homestead, which along with Immokalee and Naples ships most of Florida’s winter tomatoes, primarily suffered bloom damage, Brown said. A majority of Florida’s tomatoes are shipped December through May. Homestead packing normally ends in April, while Immokalee and Naples run through May.

In early estimates, Florida’s strawberry growers lost 38% or $4.7 million worth of their early January pickings compared to the previous season’s weekly pickings. That’s higher than the initial 10% to 20% loss, said Shawn Crocker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Dover.

Crocker said growers suffered some freeze burn after high winds blew away the water protection growers sprayed on their fields during the evening and overnight hours of Jan. 2.

“When you look at the amount of berries we lost, some of the green berries turned black,” Crocker said. “It was a sigh of relief that we protected the plant. But outward signs show we probably had a bigger loss than what we originally projected.”

Crocker said he expects the losses to increase by the end of January as growers finish their early January pickings. He said growers expect to report a $7 million equivalent loss the week of Jan. 14.

Florida’s continually increasing strawberry deal had growers planting 8,320 acres this season, up from last season’s 7,500 acres.

Florida’s strawberries ship in their highest volumes January through March.

PRICES RISING

Prices had already started increasing in early January.

Florida strawberries had jumped to $16.90-18.90 for flats of eight 1-pound clamshells, up from $14.90-16.90 in early January, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The tomato market, however, had not begun reacting yet. From central and south Florida, 25-pound cartons of loose mature-greens 85% U.S. No. 1 or better in 5x6s sold for $19.65, $15.65-16.65 for 6x6s and $11.65 for 6x7s.

That’s lower than $21.65-23.65 for 5x6s, $17.65 for 6x6s and $10.65-13.65 for 6x7s reported the week before.

For other produce, Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, said the state didn’t sustain any significant damage.

“There were some pockets of damage depending on where people were located, but all in all it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been,” she said.

Lochridge said the freeze caused some scarring and wind damage to the very young or small Belle Glade-area green beans plants. The damage, she said, should make for a little less yields.

Peak green beans movement normally occurs in February, March and April.

LITTLE EAST COAST DAMAGE

Frank Pero, vice president of Pero Vegetable Co. LLC, Delray Beach, said the freeze didn’t harm crops on the warmer East Coast cropland.

“We went through it well and didn’t sustain any damage,” he said. “We covered everything well.”

The freezing temperatures didn’t cause major losses to Georgia vegetables. Growers reported little damage, said Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee, Vidalia, Ga.

She said rain that fell before the freeze helped insulate onions. The low temperatures, Brannen said, didn’t persist long enough at the onions’ early growing stage to cause any significant damage.

Because other Georgia vegetables hadn’t been planted yet, Charles Hall, executive director of the La Grange-based Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, said the industry wasn’t harmed.

Georgia plantings normally begin in early to mid February.



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