By MICHAEL SASSO | The Tampa Tribune

Published: January 14, 2010

TAMPA - Thirty percent of Florida's crops may have been lost in the cold snap, Florida's agriculture commission says, but for now it appears that the Bay area's strawberries avoided catastrophe.

Overall, certain crops in Florida were whacked hard by the sub-freezing temperatures, while others lucked out. Still, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson said the crop losses probably run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Suffering the most is aquaculture, or the raising of tropical fish that are sold for homeowners' fish tanks. Among the industries affected by the cold weather are:

Strawberries: Plant City is the epicenter of the state's strawberry industry, which is worth at least $350 million annually, said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

Strawberry growers watered their crops around the clock to encase them in a protective layer of ice. However, they have pumped so much groundwater that geologists said they helped to cause sinkholes in eastern Hillsborough.

Still, the constant watering appears to have worked, though there is no estimate of damage yet, Campbell said.

"In terms of saving the crop, we feel pretty lucky when compared to some other crops in Florida."

Citrus: Florida Citrus Mutual, an association of citrus growers, doesn't have estimates of damage either. There has been some damage to the fruit, but even if oranges have frozen, many can still be squeezed and processed into juice. The industry is still studying how much damage has been done to citrus trees, which could be more problematic, said Andrew Meadows, a Florida Citrus Mutual spokesman.

Overall, citrus in Florida is about a $1 billion industry, not counting several billion more in ripple effects, Meadows said.

Aquaculture: Losses in this roughly $50 million local industry have run from about 30 percent to 100 percent, depending on the farm, said Marty Tanner, a local fish farmer and president of the Florida Aquaculture Association.

Fish begin to struggle when water temperature dips below 60 degrees, and in the recent cold snap most outdoor ponds fell below 50 degrees, he said.

Tomatoes: At this point in the year, most of the Ruskin area's tomatoes have already been picked, and the industry has shifted south to Homestead, said longtime grower Paul DiMare.

What tomatoes DiMare was still growing in Ruskin have died, as have his tomatoes in Immokalee. DiMare was able to save 80 percent of his Homestead crop, he said.

Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Crist allowed fruit harvesting trucks to exceed their normal weight limits to allow them to harvest more quickly. On Thursday, Bronson asked Crist to request an agriculture disaster declaration from the federal government, which would let farmers receive emergency assistance.

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