IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Calling damage to Florida growing areas substantial, Florida agriculture commissioner Charles Bronson said every south Florida field he has visited was hit hard by the freeze in early to mid-January.

Bronson toured production areas in Homestead, Belle Glade and Immokalee on Jan. 20. Produce shipments are down significantly and said the state’s growers will likely sustain hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, he said.

“The salvage numbers are not good,” Bronson said. “It will be pretty bad. This week, we are at about 40% of where we were in shipments this time of the year last year. So we know how much damage that has caused us. The question is how much more will manifest itself when we get to the end of it as warm weather will show more damage.”

Florida ag chief tours freeze-ravaged growing areas

Doug Ohlemeier

D.C. McClure (left), owner of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, Fla., talks with Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson at an Immokalee, Fla.-area tomato field destroyed by a Jan. 11 freeze.

Bronson said his agency isn’t able to release a final damage figure yet, adding that his office is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies and grower groups to determine a final estimate to request federal disaster assistance.

“For the sake of the farmers who had millions invested in their crop and for their workers who were counting on this work as their jobs, I was hoping for more salvage than what I was able to see,” he said visiting a mature-green and romat tomato field north of Immakolee planted for West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto.  

That field was a total loss, said D.C. McClure, West Coast Tomato’s vice president, farm manager and owner.

“Everything with fruit set was hurt hard,” he said. “The young plants have better survivability. We lost every tomato that was on a stake one foot or taller. Everything’s gone. It’s hard to find anything left.”

McClure said the freeze left tomatoes as hard as blocks of ice and turned their insides to mush when sliced.
The 800-acre field was in the middle of harvest when the coldest temperatures hit and remained below freezing for up to eight hours during the early morning hours of Jan. 11.

Belle Glade sweet corn and green beans sustained high losses and damage depends on the maturity of the crop, said Dan Sleep, a senior analyst with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ division of marketing.

“Some younger plants were wiped out,” he said.

Corn growers are “writing their crop off,” Bronson said.

“They’re done. Even if it was close to being salvageable, the sugar content turned to starch.”

Though a higher percentage Homestead vegetables should be salvageable, Bronson said the cold severely damaged tomatoes and corn, beans and to a lesser extent, the region’s squash.

He said the worst tomato damage he viewed was in the Immokalee area.

In a Jan. 18 estimate, Florida tomato industry officials pegged Immokalee-area damage at 70%.

Though Homestead produces small volumes, Immokalee remains Florida’s primary tomato-producing region January through March.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist extended a state of emergency until Jan. 26, easing weight, height, length and width restrictions for trucks hauling crops vulnerable to the freezes. The order allows grower-shippers to quickly harvest and transport their crops.