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All covered up

Salvador and Mike unroll Reemay to cover a row of heirloom tomatoes.

Salvador and Mike unroll Reemay to cover a row of heirloom tomatoes.

On Wednesday afternoon, the folks at Bee Heaven Farm were preparing for a chilly night. Farmer Margie Pikarsky asked visiting farmer Mike Libsch and farm hand Salvador to put the floating row cover, or Reemay, over the rows of heirloom tomatoes and beans. They are tender plants and do not like it when it gets too cold.

Mike and Salvador unrolled the bundles of light weight cover, and draped each row of tomatoes. They tied down the middle in sections with string, so that the cover wouldn’t billow and blow away, and the ends were knotted and secured. Reemay covered bush beans like a blanket, and clumps of straw bales held the edges down. The men worked quickly as the late afternoon sun sank in the clear sky.

Salvador ties down the cover so it doesn't fly around.

Salvador ties down the cover so it doesn’t fly around.

“Reemay keeps the temps a couple degrees warmer,” Margie told me. “It makes a difference between frying the tomato plants from the cold, or continuing on.” The weather forecasts called for temperatures to drop to 39 degrees in Redland, and that put area farmers on alert. “You could get patchy frost,” Margie explained, saying that it could be just as dangerous as a freeze. “As soon as temps drop below 40, in the mid 30s, you’re in trouble.”

Reemay draped over tomato trellis before getting tied down. Bush beans got covered too.

Reemay draped over tomato trellis before getting tied down. Bush beans got covered too.

Better to cover up than to take a chance on getting plants destroyed by cold. Overnight, temperatures dropped as low as 36 in various areas in Redland. “This morning there was a lot of frost,” Margie said. The cover stayed on until frost was completely gone, around  8 or 9 in the morning. Tomato and bean plants looked alright, but Margie explained that cold damage doesn’t become evident until a couple days later. For now, the Reemay was rolled up and put away, until the next cold snap comes.

Note: Reemay is a spun polyester fabric that breathes, and will not burn plants it comes in contact with. Plastic, on the other hand, will do that, and should be used only if there is a frame or support keeping it off plants.

Heirloom tomato plants all covered up.

Heirloom tomato plants all covered up.

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By CHRISTINA VEIGA

cveiga@miamiherald.com

As farmers start counting their loses from a historic early freeze, Miami-Dade County officials sought to reassure local growers in the deep southern portion of the county that help is on the way.

Farmworkers, however, may not be so lucky.

County Manager George Burgess and Agriculture Manager Charles LaPradd walked through a field of badly damaged tropical produce and told farmers the U.S. Department of Agriculture is close to issuing a state-wide disaster declaration.

That would make low-interest loans and grants available to growers whose crops suffered in cold temperatures earlier this month.

“It’s very expensive to go through a freeze,” said LaPradd, who serves as a liaison between growers and county officials. “Without the declaration, you don’t get any help.”

To read more, click here.

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A long, cold December

December: Warm weather veggies like asian eggplant weren’t able to take the cold.

It’s balmy now, but last month was a long, bitter December. Three cold spells hit Redland hard with night after night of record-breaking low temperatures that dropped to freezing and below. It was the coldest December on record in South Florida, according to the National Weather Service, and the coldest stretch of temperatures in the South Dade agricultural areas since 1989. The last time temperatures were even slightly this cold was last January, when we had almost two weeks straight of severely cold weather, also with lows in the 30s and below.

December: Tops of tomato plants froze despite being covered in straw to keep warm.

Farmer Margie told me Bee Heaven Farm got “a blanket of frost” during the second freeze early in December. (She posted many pictures of frost damage on the farm’s Facebook page.) Besides running irrigation, she had her own ideas about how to protect her plants from the freezing temperatures. If you came by for Farm Day in mid-December, you saw a lot of straw piled along rows of plants. That straw was piled on top of young pole beans and young tomatoes, forming “teepees,” as Margie put it. The straw acted like a blanket to keep the cold out. It mostly worked, except in places here and there where wind pushed straw aside and exposed plants to killing cold. Some tomato plants showed damage, and some in the same row looked ok. On my latest visit last Friday, I noticed that a few survivor tomato plants were blooming and a couple others already had fruit growing. Heirloom tomato lovers, have hope!

January: Some pole beans survived freezing temperatures. The smaller plants down the row replaced the ones that couldn’t take the cold.

Pole bean plants that survived looked vigorous last week with promising tendrils twirling up bamboo poles. Bush beans (Tongue of Fire and Dragon’s Tongue) were looking pretty good too. They had been covered with a two layers of a long white blanket of spun polyester called Reemay, its sides weighted down with straw so they wouldn’t get blown around by the wind. It worked fairly well, and lots of those beautiful purple and red colored beans made it to market the last two weeks.

The cold made plants go dormant, and their growth slowed down for a while. In the last few days of warmer weather, they suddenly hit a growth spurt. Tomato and pole bean plants with significant damage were removed and replanted. As I looked around Bee Heaven, it was hard to tell where the freezes had left damage.

But not everybody fared so well. After the second freeze in mid-December, I went out to look at one of Dan Howard’s bean fields. (Dan runs Homestead Organic Farms, and plants about 100 acres of beans and other vegetables every season.) The bean plants were still on the small side, not even half

December: Green beans in one of Dan’s fields didn’t make it. See the damaged leaves? Imagine a 20 acre field looking like this.

grown, and in the late afternoon sun, they seemed ok. But when I stooped down and looked more closely, I saw that almost almost every plant had discolored leaves damaged from the cold. Dan said he had sprayed water on his fields all night long. Ideally, water would freeze and ice would coat the plants to preserve them from further damage. Didn’t look like it worked all that well in the field I visited, yet Dan said that some of his other fields got less damage. He’s replanting beans and starting over this month.

December’s freezes hurt large commercial growers in South Dade with $273 million in crop losses, according to the Florida Dept. of Agriculture. (Last January, growers were hit with $280 million in crop losses.)

January: Some tomatoes survived. This plant is about knee high. Note gaps in the rows where damaged plants were removed and replanted.

The recent losses have their impact on us eaters as well. According to a recent article in the Miami Herald, prices for green beans, corn and yellow squash have gone up dramatically due to short supplies. And we still have a couple more months of winter to go. The long-range forecast did call for temperatures warmer than average. Hopefully that will turn out to be the case.

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Summer has just begun and it’s already a scorcher! We’ve had above normal temperatures since April 26, according to the National Weather Service. Highs have been 90 degrees or above since May 30 (except for a slight dip to 88 on June 1). The heat index has been 100+ degrees most days. Last June was even hotter. Record temperatures were set on June 22, 2009 in Miami with a high of 98. Fort Lauderdale had a high of 100, tying an all time record. This summer feels hotter because temps have consistently been at 90 or above for 59 days and counting, while last summer temps were mostly in the high 80s with a few spikes in the 90s.

The last picture I took before getting chased off by a hot and cranky bee.

This crazy heat has an effect on livestock at Bee Heaven Farm. Chickens stand with their beaks open, panting, and hold their wings out a bit to their sides to try to cool off. Bees don’t like heat and get cranky. I passed by the hives when beekeeeper Miguel Bode was working with them a few weekends ago. One bee took offense to where I was standing, buzzed around my head, and chased me for a good distance. Lucky for me, I didn’t get stung but it felt close! Even the worms in the vermiculture bin have been suffering mightily. Instinctively they’ve dived down to the bottom of the bin, seeking cooler soil, but hit bottom instead. The Worm Guy (that’s what Margie calls him) advised chilling them down with frozen water bottles buried in the bin. Wigglers on the rocks, anyone?

I asked Farmer Margie what grows well in this kind of heat. “Weeds!” she exclaimed. Those weeds completely took over vegetable beds after Gleaning Day. Margie mowed them down, and now that she’s had two days without rain, she’s out on her tractor tilling the soil, preparing to plant cover crops.

Some summer fruit is finally starting to get ready, but running a little behind schedule because of the freeze this winter. The extended period of super cold weather caused plants to go dormant for weeks. Lychees (Mauritus variety) are bearing late this year. Margie pointed out that last year, a bumper crop of lychees were harvested in late May. This year the harvest began in mid-June, and the quantity isn’t quite as much.

Mauritus lychees from last summer.

Another casualty of the cold are mango trees which were in bloom in January when the freeze hit. The long stretch of freezing temperatures damaged blossoms. Some fruit set and grew, but then aborted and fell off. I’ve seen trees that don’t have as much fruit, and if they do, they’re not as plentiful and not as big or developed.

Half-grown Donnie avocado.

Avocado trees seemed to escape significant damage from the freeze in January. Branches are loaded with fruit several inches long, about the size of Haas avocados in the groceries. If you’re not familiar with Florida avocados, and you have a tree in your yard, don’t get confused and pick early! The varieties that grow here, especially the Donnies that Margie raises, get much much, much bigger than the Haas variety from California or Mexico. Last summer many Donnie avocados weighed in at 3 pounds apiece, and one giant weighed 4 pounds. Avocado picking will start in mid-July, also several weeks later than last summer.

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Freeze damaged heirloom beans, two weeks after the last freeze. Bee Heaven Farm, Jan. 22.

A week later, the freeze damage appears even worse at Bee Heaven Farm. Leaves that were brown last week look almost black and withered. Heirloom pole beans are totally fried. The last of the Gold of Bacau beans sold at market last Sunday. Margie says she’ll replant beans, but it’s going to be a couple months before you see them at market again.

Heirloom tomatoes after the last freeze. Bee Heaven Farm, Jan. 22.

Most of the heirloom tomatoes look pretty rough, too. The leaves of some varieties are completely black and shriveled, and other varieties look just fine. Cold resistance clearly depends on the variety. Most tomato plants dropped green, unripe fruit because of the cold, but enough stayed on the vines for a moderate, hopeful harvest. Irrigation and light fertilizing continues, and it’s wait and see as to how much can be salvaged. “As long as the plant has some green leaves, there’s hope for recovery,” Margie said. She’s also going to replant, but it’ll be a while before there will be more tomatoes at market.

Avocado buds forming two weeks after the freeze.

Some avocado trees got their leaf tips burned by the freeze, but otherwise don’t seem the worse for the wear. They started putting out buds last week. Ideally, the buds will turn into blooms, which when pollinated, will turn into fruit. But time will tell. The freeze could still have a hidden impact on the trees that may show up months later. The blossoms may not form properly, or not set fruit, or drop fruit before it matures. Anything can go wrong, all because of so much harsh cold weather.

Over at Worden Farm, they were affected by the freeze but they are bouncing back, Eva Worden told me. It was very cold for quite a while, with 23 degrees at ground level at the coldest. They had freezing cold weather for 10 days to two weeks, and that abnormally long stretch of cold weather was “definitely record breaking,” according to Eva. In very cold weather, seeds don’t germinate, and plants don’t grow. “They just kinda hang out,” as Eva put it, and that delay pushes back the harvest schedule.

Crops protected by floating row cover. Courtesy of Worden Farm.

Crops were protected with floating row cover. The Wordens and their crew did plant vegetables planning for a freeze to happen (as they get at least one every winter up in Punta Gorda), choosing those that would be minimally affected. Collards, carrots and beets didn’t die from the cold. In fact they will be kissed with sweetness. The cold causes those plants to get a higher sugar concentration. But the warm weather crops — tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil — were destroyed by the extreme cold. The leafy potato tops also died from the cold, and now they are harvesting baby potatoes fast and furious. Worden Farm will have enough for us in Miami in a couple weeks, as things get replanted and start to mature. We might get mostly greens and radishes from them, and maybe those small potatoes.

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Have you thawed out yet? We had two weeks of record-breaking cold temperatures this month. It seemed each night a new low was recorded, and the cold went on for the longest stretch anyone could remember. “I’ve been down here for 40 years and I’ve never seen a cold snap like this,” marveled Cliff Middleton of Three Sisters Farm. And this long cold spell did break yet another record. Beginning January 2nd, we had 12 days in a row of temps dropping below 50 degrees, and came one day short of breaking the record of 13 days straight, set in Miami in Jan/Feb 1940, according to the National Weather Service.

The weekend of Saturday January 9th brought historic lows that were well below freezing. And by the wee hours of Monday January 11, hopes of any chance of crops escaping harm died as the temperature dropped into the high to mid 20s and stayed there for several hours. That was long enough to destroy cold-sensitive plants.

Green bean field, Homestead Organics. Taken on Friday Jan. 8, before the last freeze.

Same green bean field, Homestead Organics. Taken on Friday Jan. 15, after the freeze.

The growers of Redland Organics got hit hard by the freeze this past week. Dan Howard of Homestead Organics had five fields planted with green beans. He watered the crops for days to protect them from the cold. But early Monday Jan. 11th, the temperature fell as low as 28 degrees on his front porch, with the coldest temps around 4 – 5 a.m., and it stayed below freezing until dawn.There was no fighting it. All 22 acres of green beans were damaged.

“Farmers gamble with the weather and are risk takers,” Dan said. Sometimes they gamble and lose. Because of the freeze, Dan says he lost $100K in sales. He has crop insurance, but since beans are not a specialty crop, insurance will only pay for seed and fertilizer and not much more. He’s all ready to replant, though. “Don’t have much of a choice otherwise,” he laughed. The Friday before the last freeze, he cultivated one field, preparing the soil for planting. And just the other day he loaded his truck with bean seeds and was ready to start over again.

Cliff Middleton lost all of his above ground crops, but not as many root crops. He fought the cold by “basically saturating the land with water,” he explained. “But that many hours of cold will kill plants. Callaloo has a very low tolerance for cold and is all burned. The results of the damage will last for a year. All the fruit trees will react to this.”

Robert Barnum of Possum Trot got patchy frost in his grove, and is concerned about long-term damage to his sensitive tropical trees. He grows 300 types, and caimito, anona and guanabana are the most cold sensitive. “The cold will kill cambium, the growing layer between the bark and the wood,” Robert explained. Branches or a trunk less than four inches in diameter will die more easily, depending on how cold the temperature falls and for how long. “A tree looks OK for a while, and then the damage shows up later. Some damage takes months to show up. Lots of things can show up. Buds might not form, or form small, or not set fruit and drop off,” he said. Sounds like there might not be as much fruit this summer, but time will tell.

Heirloom pole beans damaged by the cold. Bee Heaven Farm, Jan. 15.

It was simply too cold for too long, and pole beans and heirloom tomatoes at Bee Heaven Farm didn’t make it. Margie Pikarsky and her crew covered them up with Reemay (floating row cover) for two weeks. The plants made it though the first freeze right after New Year’s, and at first it seemed like they would survive the cold. But Reemay wasn’t effective on that fateful Monday morning. Pole beans, including the dappled Dragons Tongue beans blogged about on Mango & Lime are pretty much all dead. Leaves are burned and withered, and it’s uncertain if the plants will have enough energy to grow new leaves and blooms. The heirloom tomatoes are also pretty much destroyed. Don’t expect too many heirloom tomatoes this season at the farmers market. Read more about the freeze at the Bee Heaven Farm blog. Not all was lost, though. I saw carrots, radishes, kohlrabi and dill looking no worse for the wear.

Heirloom tomato plant completely destroyed by the cold. Bee Heaven Farm, Jan. 15.

Gabriele Marewski of Paradise Farms covered her raised vegetable beds with Reemay and her vegetables survived, along with the microgreens. But the edible flowers that she is known for did not. “They were vining too much and it was almost impossible to cover them all,” she explained. “The flowers are a total loss.” Crop insurance doesn’t cover edible flowers or microgreens, and considers them “experimental,” and the quantities she grows are too small to get coverage. Oyster mushrooms slowed down because of the lower humidity, but Gabriele expects a big flush of growth as it warms up, and plenty of mushrooms in time for market this Saturday.

[Note: Heard that Worden Farm had major losses and is replanting fast and furious. They had much colder temps for much longer up in Punta Gorda. Hope to get an interview with them soon.]

So, for the next month or two, pickings might be slim when it comes to local produce. You just may not find some things (like beans) that you got earlier in the season, at least not for a while; and other things (like heirloom tomatoes) may not be available at all or in very limited quantities. Despite that, do make it a point to support your local growers when you shop at farmers markets and grocery stores. They need your help to bounce back from their losses.

Healthy green bean plant, before the freeze.

Damaged green bean plant, after the freeze.

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Freeze’s toll

The Miami Herald
Posted on Sat, Jan. 16, 2010

Freeze takes huge toll on Florida agriculture

http://www.miamiherald.com/business/story/1428216.html

BY ELAINE WALKER
ewalker@MiamiHerald.com

Although the freezing weather is finally gone, consumers in South Florida and across the country will soon feel the impact at the grocery store.From green beans and yellow corn in Homestead to tomatoes in Immokalee, the freeze had a devastating effect on the vegetable industry. In some cases, entire fields were destroyed, with statewide losses expected to stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

While some farmers have managed to salvage part of their crops and others are already replanting, supply is going to be a problem for at least a month or two, depending on the crop. That in turn translates into higher prices for consumers.

“Tomatoes that were trading for $14 for a 25-pound box, now they are up at $24 a box,” said Gene McAvoy, a vegetable expert with the University of Florida. “Consumers can probably expect to see prices go up about $1 a pound. But at a certain point, the consumer is going to balk and people will start to back away from certain items.”

The timing of the freeze couldn’t have been worse for Florida’s vegetable farmers, who were in the midst of the peak growing season. During the winter months, Florida growers are the largest U.S. supplier of vegetables.

Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson told state legislators earlier this week he believes that about 30 percent of the state’s agricultural crops were damaged or destroyed. With losses expected to reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, that’s another blow to the state’s already fragile economy.

Florida growers typically generate about $8 billion a year in annual agricultural revenue, said Florida Agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy.

“The industry is going to be hit hard,” McElroy said, “but farmers are a pretty resilient group.”

In Miami-Dade County alone, the losses are estimated at just over $250 million, which is about 40 percent of the more than $600 million in revenue agriculture generates each year, said Charles LaPradd, agriculture manager for Miami-Dade County.

Hardest hit in Miami-Dade were the row crops like green beans, squash and corn, said Katie Edwards, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau. About 30 percent of the county’s tomato crop took a hit, Edwards said, but growers are still trying to assess the damage.

“We got some stuff that got hurt and some stuff that made it,” said Freddy Strano, a Homestead tomato grower, who estimates his losses could range between 20 percent and 50 percent of his 250 acres. “It’s hard to tell. Anything on the outside of the plant got exposed and is no good. We’re trying to salvage what we can.”

In the Immokalee area, which is one of the major areas for tomato production, produce losses are estimated at over $100 million, McAvoy said. Tomatoes in Immokalee were nearly wiped out for the winter season.

Bob Spencer of West Coast Tomato says about 95 percent of the tomatoes that he would be picking over the next 45 days in Immokalee are gone. He estimates he lost close to 250 acres of crops, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We haven’t experienced a freeze like this in 20 years,” Spencer said. “It reminds the ego what can happen. Farming is a tough sport. It’s not flag football. It’s tackle football.”

The last freeze of this magnitude Florida experienced was in 1989. But this recent cold spell potentially was more devastating for farmers because the freezing temperatures lingered for a week — 10 days in some places. Many crops can withstand one or two days of freezing temperatures, but with prolonged exposure there is no escape.

“Typically if you water the crops ahead of the cold period, it will help,” said John Alger of Alger Farms in South Miami-Dade. “A bulletproof vest works only to a certain size gun. If you keep getting shot in the same place, eventually it’s going to get through.”

Alger, who grows sweet corn and landscape trees, estimates he lost “way over a million” dollars from the freeze, which destroyed about 75 percent of his 1,250 acres of sweet corn.

“It’s not only the farmer, but everyone in related businesses from the truck drivers to the crop dusters, the harvesting crew and the packing houses are going to be impacted,” he said. “The multiplier effect on the economy is devastating.”

Florida tomato growers are already worrying about how to avoid panic over the tomato shortages and make the current supply last as long as possible until the spring crop is ready for harvest in late March.

“The tomatoes we have are going to be metered out to try to meet our customer demand,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange.

“It’s going to be an opportunity for Mexico to make inroads, and that’s never a good thing.”

© 2010 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.miamiherald.com

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