Florida farmers fear major crop damage from cold spell

Produce supply could be affected as temperatures plunge into the 30s

South Florida is responsible for about half the produce Americans consume during the winter months, and much of it is in danger as temperatures are forecast to plunge into the 30s this weekend.

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Off Exit 6, toward the end of Florida’s Turnpike, farmers are rushing to save their precious crop of produce, which could be under attack this weekend as temperatures are forecast to dip lower than they’ve been in more than a decade in South Florida.

During the winter months, South Florida is responsible for about half the produce Americans consume, and millions of dollars worth of those fruits, vegetables and nursery plants could be lost in just one morning.

“We’re concerned,” said Charles LaPradd agricultural manager for Miami-Dade County. “Possibly our coldest spell we’ve seen in years. ... We are looking at some possible damages to that, certainly supply interruptions if that occurs.

By Sunday morning, widespread temperatures in the 30s are expected in the region. It could be the first time a temperature in the 30s is measured at Miami International Airport since Dec. 28, 2010 — and inland areas are expected to be the coldest.

Some protection for the crops is coming in the form of irrigation, which is not used often in South Florida but is familiar to tomato farmer Kern Carpenter, who says they have sprinklers on standby to be used solely for frost protection.

Miami-Dade County farmers are concerned as temperatures are expected to dip into the 30s in parts of South Florida that haven't gotten that cold in over a decade.

“If the wind is calm, you crank the pumps up,” said Carpenter, whose family has been farming here since the 1940s. “If the wind is blowing, in most cases you would choose to don’t turn on them and hope that they survive.”

Water sprayed in the fields freezes and releases heat into the air as the liquid water changes to ice. But this process is a double-edged sword.

“If it gets very cold and you have a lot of wind, then you can get a lot of ice and that can actually be more damaging,” LaPradd said.

And wind is expected this weekend.

Tino Alvarez, a supervisor at Redland Nursery, was working to protect about a million dollars worth of greenery Friday. His team was putting up plastic sheeting, creating a space where they can essentially make an entirely different climate for some of their most valuable plants.

“First we put on the plastic to keep the heat in and once we turn on the water, the water will come out warm and heat up the air,” Alvarez said.

Produce farmers were also hard at work, picking the product that’s mature enough and putting water on the rest of it.

But Sam Accursio of Sam Accursio and Sons Farms said no matter how much work they do, they’re at the mercy of Mother Nature and still could lose everything if it gets cold enough.

“That would be the most devastating part come Monday morning if 100% where we’re standing is dead,” he said. “And it’s happened to me before. I’m just hoping and praying that it doesn’t happen Sunday and Monday.”

He also points out that “if we lose our crops, you’re going to see [the impact] in the grocery store.”

”We’re at the height of our vegetable season, which are very tender crops, and most of our tropical food are flowering at this time, that’s very tender,” LaPradd said.

Farmers and agriculture officials will be out Sunday to see the impact of the cold weather on the crops, but they say it can take days or even weeks to determine the extent of losses.

“This could be a sleepless night Saturday certainly for everyone down here,” LaPradd said.

About the Authors:

Ian Margol joined the Local 10 News team in July 2016 as a general assignment reporter. Born in Miami Beach and raised in Broward County, Ian is thrilled to be back home in South Florida.