ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — December’s wave of unusually cold weather has destroyed much of Florida’s green beans and sweet corn, which means shoppers will pay more at the grocery store and see more imports on the shelves.
Florida is the nation’s largest producer of green beans and sweet corn — the kind of corn we eat, not the kind we put in our gas tanks.
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, the state lost $273 million from the December freezes alone — including nearly 9,000 acres of crops. The statistics are compiled only through Dec. 20, which means they don’t even account for the problems caused by this week’s cold.
2010 dealt a one-two punch for the state’s farms. An 11-day spell in January was one of the area’s coldest periods on record, and December has had an unprecedented trio of cold fronts.
Sam Accursio lost nearly all of his pickling cucumbers at his Homestead farm last January. Eleven months later, about half of his new crop has been wiped out.
“It’s crazy,” Accursio said. “I’ve never experienced a growing season where we’ve had four frosts in one year.”
Gov. Charlie Crist extended the state of emergency for Florida’s agricultural community this week. The order eliminates all weight restrictions on trucks carrying agricultural products so farmers can harvest and ship as much produce as possible before more damage is done.
But if any Florida corn, cucumbers or beans find their way onto grocery store shelves in coming weeks, prices will be higher.
J.D. Poole, the vice president and sales manager of Pioneer Growers Cooperative in Belle Glade, said corn was selling at $8 a box at the beginning of December. Now it’s selling for $30 a box (there are 48 ears of corn in a box).
About 80 percent of the crop in western Palm Beach County — where most Florida sweet corn is grown — was destroyed during the first cold snap in December. Corn farmers farther south in Homestead are still trying to determine what, if any, damage was done to their young plants by this week’s weather.
“Obviously the supply has dwindled down to nothing,” Poole said. “Everybody’s cupboards are bare.”
Until Florida’s farmers can replant and grow another crop, families in the U.S. will be getting much of their produce from overseas.
“You’re going to see product being sourced out of Mexico,” said Brad Bergmann, the co-owner of Hugh H. Branch, Inc., a Belle Glade company that stores, ships and markets corn, beans and romaine lettuce grown by farmers near Florida’s Everglades. “As far as Florida product, it’s still going to take some time to see the full effects of this. But you’re going to see higher pricing.”
While strawberry and citrus farmers can use sprinklers and other irrigation methods to coat fruit with insulating water during a freeze, that doesn’t work with vegetables. Those growing beans and corn have turned to another, more expensive, line of defense: helicopters.
Farmers pay about $2,500 an hour to fly a helicopter back and forth over the crops, pushing warm air 50 feet above the plants onto the cold ground. The warmer air prevents cold and frost from settling on the plants.
But the technique can be used only when there is no wind. And it’s dangerous; three helicopters crashed in separate accidents while trying to warm crops in Palm Beach County in early December. One of the pilots suffered serious injuries, the other two had minor scrapes and bruises.
It’s not just corn that has suffered. Florida’s agriculture department released a list of losses this week:
— The eggplant crop is down by 80 percent, with the total U.S. market down 8.5 percent — nearly all attributed to Florida’s losses.
— Shipments of bell peppers from Florida are down some 50 percent, while pepper shipments from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Nicaragua are up.
— Green beans were heavily affected by the freeze — prices have skyrocketed from about $8.85 a bushel around Thanksgiving to about $35 now. Meanwhile, imports from Guatemala are up by 75 percent.
— Lettuces also took a hit. Endive and escarole harvests are down 40 percent, and Bergmann said about 6,000 acres of Romaine have “gone kaput.”
One bright spot: strawberries. The fruit on the vine survived, and farmers’ only worry is that coming weeks’ crops will be delayed because the cold weather slowed plants’ growth.
It’s still unknown how citrus, the state’s biggest crop, was affected by December’s weather. About 90 percent of Florida’s orange crop is used for juice, and processors won’t tally deliveries and the amount of juice until June. Damage to trees also is slow to reveal itself.
The state’s kumquat crop definitely suffered. Kumquats, which look like tiny oranges but taste slightly more bitter, are highly susceptible to cold weather and freeze at 26 degrees.
Greg Gude, the general manager of Kumquat Growers, Inc. in Dade City, said they’ve lost 20 percent of the crop this year, after losing 50 percent in January.
“It has been one of the coldest years we’ve ever dealt with,” Gude said. “Every week, we’ve been staying up watching the temperatures. It’s really just more of a worry time for us. There’s really nothing you can do.”