While Florida prepares for freezing temperatures tonight and Wednesday, some say there may be a bright spot amid the heavy coats and chattering teeth: sweeter oranges.
“It is true that a little bit of cold weather is good for the citrus crop,” said Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. “It’s not just citrus. It’s the same with blueberries and strawberries. It’s something that goes on in the fruit itself.”
Although the cold isn’t expected to stick around for long, AccuWeather senior metereologist Alex Sosnowski told ABC News today that tonight would be the coldest with multiple hours of temperatures below the freezing mark — 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
He said that temperatures in the lower 20s and middle 20s could damage the fruit, but that the state’s orange groves were farther south on the peninsula and less subject to the deep freeze.
Fruits and vegetables in central and north central Florida will be at risk, however.
According to Sosnowski, a light frost sweetening the oranges was common information.
“It has to do with the seasoning of the fruit. Anytime you partially break down the structure of the fruit, you tend to sweeten it,” he said. “As long as the [temperatures are] not too severe and totally doesn’t damage the fruit. The slight freeze elevates the sugar content.”
Fred Gmitter, a professor of citrus breeding and genetics at the University of Florida, told ABC News today that he was not aware of any data proving this theory and that he believed it was a “sort of wives’ tale.”
“Whether they get sweeter or not,” he said, “that’s kind of questionable in my opinion.”
He did say that damage done to an orange’s skin by the cold weather could lead to water evaporation and a greater concentration of sugar in the fruit, as seen in the case of rust mites.
The Florida association’s Lochridge said the state’s citrus growers were watching forecasts and protecting their crops. Right now, harvesting is at its peak for the state’s $9 billion citrus industry.
“Growers are used to temperatures dipping. They use low volume drip irrigation around the base of the tree,” she said. “The water keeps the base of the tree warm.”
Sosnowski said growers also would spray water on their citrus fields and use smudge pots and even wind machines powered by propane to stir the air and keep the cold air from sinking.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in December than this season Florida would produce 150 million boxes of oranges, including Valencias, navels and temples.
The retail price of orange juice — a gallon is now about $6 — has not been easing, according to Dr. Tom Spreen, a professor of food and resource economics at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
He said a major freeze event — similar to the one that occurred around Christmas 1989 – in which 15 percent to 20 percent of the crop was lost would make prices move. That is not expected to occur tonight or Wednesday.
Spreen said, however, that few orange groves remained north around Orlando and Tampa and that growers had learned to make their groves less vulnerable.