Florida's freeze chills crops, tropical fish

Several days of the coldest temperatures South Florida has seen in years are threatening to ruin orange groves, cucumber fields and tropical fish ponds across the state.

"This is peak harvest season for many Florida crops, so damage at this time could have significant consequences stretching far outside Florida's borders," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said. Freezing temperatures hit South Florida on Wednesday night for the first time since January 2003, said Amy Godsey, deputy state meteorologist. Interior areas such as Lake Okeechobee saw temperatures as low as 23.

Growers of Florida citrus and other fruits and vegetables said Friday that they will not know until next week how much damage there is to their crops from freezing temperatures that swept through the state this week.

Temperatures were forecast to rise today and remain above freezing, Godsey said.

Much of the damage to Florida's $7 billion agriculture industry may have already been done, said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Florida supplies 70% of domestically grown fruits and vegetables during the winter months, and many of them are still in the field, including oranges, strawberries, blueberries and tomatoes, McElroy said.

Meanwhile, residents awake before sunrise also spent the first few minutes outside chipping away a thin layer of ice from their car windshields.

No deaths or injuries have been reported due to the cold, but utilities have been issuing warnings.

"They want people to be aware that (the cold) can produce extreme demand for electrical heating, the system is under a lot of stress," Craig Fugate, director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist waived weight restrictions on produce trucks so citrus growers could get more frozen fruit to juicers before it spoils.

Tom Schuller, president of the Brevard County Farm Bureau, said 90% of the oranges and grapefruits on his 122-acre orchard were damaged.

The cold also may cause a die-off in Florida's tropical fish industry, 80% of which lies within 50 miles of Tampa International Airport, said David Boozer, executive director of the Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association.

Boozer said water temperatures in some uncovered fish ponds dipped into the upper 40s. He said 52 degrees is the "critical level" for the South American and African cichlids, mollies, angelfish and tetras.

Fugate cautioned that relief may not be near. "This isn't the end of winter, so more cold snaps could cause more problems," he said.