Can Fla. produce recover from a double whammy?

Here's how the wild weather is affecting fruit and vegetable supply.

Florida growers were still reeling from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma in September when they were hit with sub-freezing temperatures at the beginning of January. With fresh, local produce scarce in many parts of the U.S. in midwinter, operators rely on Florida’s crops of citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers and more to fill out the menu. How will these severe weather events affect prices and supply?

Strawberry farmers got some advance notice of January’s freeze and many were able to take precautionary measures. Wish Farms, a large grower based in Plant City, Fla., reported on its website that most of its central Florida growers use overhead irrigation, which protects the crops by forming a shield of ice around the berries and blooms to stabilize the temperature above 32 degrees. Others covered the plants with tarps for protection. However, the extreme cold weather—which reoccurred in mid-January—is slowing down the strawberries’ ripening process, which will result in decreased supply until the weather returns to normal.

Additionally, "when growers water plants to protect them from the cold, the plants drop blooms and, unfortunately, that's going to manifest itself for Valentine's Day with light supply during the biggest demand," says Steve Sterling, general manager and market analyst for Fresh-Link Produce LLC.

Most of Florida’s vegetable crops are grown in the southern part of the state, which didn’t experience the same frigid temperatures this month. Although there wasn’t the threat of a hard freeze, wind chill brought frost conditions to the growing region, according to ProAct, a network of produce distributors, which caused some flower damage to crops including tomatoes, bell peppers, beans, squash and eggplant.

Tomato prices peaked in December, a result of Hurricane Irma’s earlier destruction, and were just starting to drop back to normal before the chill hit, says David Maloni, president of the American Restaurant Association. There’s the potential of a gap in supply of both tomatoes and squash from the recent cold snap.

Citrus probably took the biggest hit this season. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam announced that Florida citrus sustained more than $760 million in damage. The USDA forecast of 54 million boxes of oranges for 2017-18 season, estimated at the season's start, is now down 8 million to 46 million boxes. That’s going to translate into higher prices for orange juice and other byproducts.

"We went through a tight [produce] supply situation right after the freeze, with prices shooting up," says Sterling. "But now crops are recovering and markets are down, with the exception of eggplant. It's going to be a roller coaster spring, dealing with peaks and valleys of supply. But it could have been a lot worse."

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