By Erika Webb
Sustained freezing temperatures in late February and early March are the exact opposite of what citrus growers want. But that's what they got in Volusia County, even after citrus trees had sprouted green buds and boasted some already-open blossoms containing the next crop of fruit.
Steve Crump, a fourth-generation citrus grower, said the temperature dipped to 27 degrees in the early hours of March 4 at Vo-LaSalle Farms in DeLeon Springs. He said he has no idea how long the temperature stayed there.
"This week there was damage to open flower blossoms and some of the little buds, just starting to open, got burned," Mr. Crump said. "But most did not this time."
What a freeze this late in the winter -- edging toward spring -- means for growers is a delay in blossoms, Mr. Crump said.
"For now, it's stopped the buds from growing," he said. "I don't think it's gonna make a difference to the quantity; it might mean a later start to the harvest because we'll be behind on the start of the blossoms. They'll bloom later than usual."
Usual is anywhere from around the end of the first week to the middle of March. That's when the flowers generally are in full bloom and completely open, he said.
There was no damage to existing fruit on the trees this time and Mr. Crump said the unseasonably cold weather will not adversely affect the quality of next year's citrus crops.
In looking back and talking to his father, Bruce Crump, who has spent many a season sweating the cold, Mr. Crump said he thinks 1980 was the last year temperatures dropped this low in March.
"As soon as it warms up they'll take off again," he said. "Orange trees can do that if the blooms are real small. Usually the flowers come out (fully) within 10 days; this year it will be scattered."
Grower Rick Hough did not have high hopes on Saturday, March 2, as clear skies and strong winds ushered in freezing temperatures. He said frost predictions for the coming nights meant a dismal forecast for next winter's harvest. A low of 24 degrees in DeLeon Springs the weekend before had already damaged most of the blossoms in his 10-acre grove.
"I had the majority of them starting to open and (the cold) knocked the bloom off of most, except for some inside blooms where I had the misters on and (that) protected them," Mr. Hough said.
In addition to burning the new growth, late February's 10-hour chill damaged the blooms that had opened early due to an unseasonably warm January.
"Sometimes the trees will put on another bloom but if it's a real late bloom the fruit's not usually as good, but it can be harvested, just a little later," Mr. Hough said. "If there's no second bloom, the fruit crop is gonna be real thin up here. I probably won't have enough for somebody to come and commercially pick it."
Mr. Hough called his last harvest "halfway decent" and said the coming year's had promised to be even better but now he's less optimistic.
"I'm just hoping in a couple of weeks maybe there'll be another bloom if the weather warms up," Mr. Hough said. "But the old timers say it's not 'til after the full moon in March that chances of another freeze are slim. But there have been freezes in April."
He said another bugaboo of Florida citrus growers in recent years is citrus greening -- one of the most serious citrus plant diseases in the world, according to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website, which reports once a tree is infected there is no cure.
Mr. Hough said new sprays are being developed, but so far with no success.
He blames the North American Free Trade Act, citing beetle-infested fruit shipped to Miami from outside the country has allowed the tree-killing disease to spread to the United States.
According to Florida Citrus Mutual's website, citrus greening, the newest threat to the industry, was first discovered in a Miami-Dade grove in 2005. It is a bacterium carried by an Asian insect and has already spread to all 32 of the state's citrus-growing counties.
"Citrus greening is worse down south than it is here right now," Mr. Hough said. "Those growers were coming up here to buy from us."
After the cold snaps, he doesn't know how much of a crop Central Florida will yield to supply South Florida sellers' needs, he said.
Karen Stauderman is the commercial horticultural extension agent for the University of Florida's Volusia County extension office.
She said 29 degrees for 30 minutes or longer is enough to do significant damage to citrus trees.
"Then it gets into the new growth and (damage) is more severe," Ms. Stauderman said.
Satsuma oranges and kumquats are the most cold tolerant, she said. Orange hybrids and grapefruit have a medium tolerance and the most cold-sensitive are lemons, limes and citrons.
Members of Mr. Hough's family have farmed citrus in Volusia for more than 70 years. He's no stranger to the mercy, or lack thereof, of Mother Nature.
"It's more of a family thing so it's hard to give up even though sometimes you want to give up," he said.
Mr. Crump echoed the stick-to-it sentiment.
"We're too stubborn to change, I guess," he said laughing. "But, really, we're set up for citrus and it's what we know how to do the best."
The Florida citrus industry creates a $9 billion annual economic impact, employing nearly 76,000 people, and covering about 550,000 acres, according to Florida Citrus Mutual's website.
Founded in 1948, Florida Citrus Mutual is the state's largest citrus grower organization.