By Doug Ohlemeier for The Packer

BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- A pair of freezes that struck Florida's central and southern growing regions was expected to harm shipments of Florida spring cucumbers, green beans and sweet corn.

The freezing temperatures, which hit during the early morning hours of Feb. 17 and Feb. 19, damaged south Florida's early spring green beans and sweet corn.

Damages were undetermined as of March 1. Some estimates had the freezes harming as much as half of Lake Okeechobee-area planted sweet corn and up to 75% of the area's green beans.

Grower-shippers hadn't finished their assessments of the damages in late February. They said they expected a later-than-normal start for sweet corn and lesser volume of Belle Glade-grown spring green beans.

Promotable sweet corn volume from Belle Glade would likely start April 20, later than the normal early April start.

South Florida green beans generally are in production from November through May.

The freezes did not cause significant damage to Immokalee, Homestead or other East Coast growing regions' sweet corn and green beans, growers said.

Cucumbers for the most part survived the freeze but sustained some stunting along with burned plants. Growers said they weren't sure how much yields could be down on the spring crop which normally starts in mid-March. Because of the cold, this year's spring cucumbers would likely start towards the end of March, about 10 days later than usual.

Central Florida blueberries suffered a 10% loss, but the region's strawberries escaped damage from the twin freezes.

Despite the rough weather, Florida grower-shippers were looking forward to a favorable spring season for other spring vegetables such as bell peppers and eggplant and fruit such as citrus and strawberries.

EARLY SPRING

Grower-shippers said the losses, which could total more than $40 million in market value only, would mean market disruptions by having less sweet corn and green beans on the market in late March and early April.

"Mid-April on will be a normal situation for us on beans and corn," said Randy Wilkinson, president of Belle Glade-based shipper Wilkinson-Cooper Produce Inc. "We're all dealing with a little less numbers."

Because of unfavorable growing conditions and a decrease in the amount of Florida-planted acreage, green beans prices had been moving upward even before the pair of freezes struck south Florida green beans growing regions.

Green beans markets that normally are in the teens escalated from $24 before the freeze to the mid- to upper-$30s for bushel cartons and crates.

"There should be lighter supplies for a little while through mid- to late March," said Gene Duff, executive vice president and general manager of Pioneer Growers Co-op, Belle Glade.

WARMER WEATHER

Grower-shippers were expecting normal volumes on bell peppers, blueberries, citrus, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, squash, strawberries and tomatoes.

"Overall, the season looks good," said Frank Pero, vice president of Pero Vegetable Co. LLC, Delray Beach. "Volumes are very good. We are probably normal to above normal on yields. The quality has been excellent."

Florida's winter southern and central growing regions have been hotter than usual. December and January brought above-normal temperatures. The region's temperatures were 15 degrees higher than typical for the winter growing season. That made some crops such as sweet corn come to maturity much sooner, grower-shippers said.

The warm weather accelerated Florida production, said Fred Moore, salesman for Five Bros. Produce Inc., Homestead.

"It has made everything maybe a little ahead of schedule," he said in mid-February.

Normally, Homestead growers pick beans that were 65-70 days old during February. This season, however, growers have been picking green beans that were 58-63 days old, Moore said. The same went for squash, he said.

CITRUS OUTLOOK

Citrus grower-shippers said they expected to have plenty of high-quality fresh grapefruit, oranges and tangerines. Because of the lower temperatures that struck in February, which helped firm up the crop, they said the harvest season likely would run a little longer, too.

"The quality on grapefruit has been excellent for the whole season," said Bobby Bawcum, president of Diversified Citrus Marketing, Lake Hamilton, the marketing arm of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association. "This has been the best year on grapefruit we've had for three years."

Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League, Vero Beach, said grapefruit normally reaches maturity in early March. Fruit quality peaks in March.

"It's at the zenith of quality now," he said in mid-February. "It's so sweet. It's a great crop."

Because of favorable growing conditions during the fall and winter, Bournique said Indian River growers, who account for most of Florida's fresh grapefruit shipments, should pack high quality fruit through May. Florida's grapefruit season normally ends by early May.