Farms around Lake Okeechobee prepare for frigid temps

OKEECHOBEE — As weather forecasts predicated near record lows across south Florida during the first week of January, workers at farms all around Lake Okeechobee scrambled to prepare crops to get through the freezing temperatures.

Charles Obern, vice president of C & B Farms based out of Clewiston, was out in the fields with his workers early Wednesday morning Jan. 3 overseeing preparations.

“Right now we’re covering all of our crops with freeze cloth, which are essentially giant blankets,” said Mr. Obern. “We’re also raising our water table using wells to pump up warm water from the aquifer.”

Freeze blankets around Okeechobee in January 2018.

According to Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), agribusiness in Florida has grown into a $120 billion dollar industry, second only to the tourism industry in the Sunshine State.

A deep freeze in December of 2010 cost the state over $273 million dollars and over 9,000 acres of crops, as stated in a report prepared by FDACS.

“Loss of crops, and in turn revenue, is a huge concern for everybody,” said Mr. Obern.

“Especially after the rough hurricane season that we just endured.”

Losses from Irma, the category 4 hurricane that battered Florida Sept. 10-11, totaled over $2.5 billion dollars for Florida agriculture. Almost $400 million of those losses came from Florida’s sugar industry alone.

As the cold weather approached, Judy Sanchez, U.S. Sugar’s Senior Director for Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, released a statement on the preparations U.S. Sugar and its family of farmers were making.

“We are bringing up the water levels in the canals around our sweet corn, sugarcane and citrus and other crops.” said Mrs. Sanchez. “Adding moisture provides warmth to the soil and helps protect the plants. We will also fly helicopters over our sweet corn crop. Like most farmers, we are preparing for the worst while praying for the best.”

The National Weather Service issued a freeze warning for multiple counties in central Florida, including Okeechobee, for the early morning of Jan. 5. A freeze warning means sub-freezing temperatures are imminent or highly likely. These conditions will kill crops and other sensitive vegetation.

If you maintain a garden at home and can’t afford to fly helicopters over your crops to push warm air down on them like U.S. Sugar can, there are still other options to help you minimize the damage done by the cold.

One thing recommended to protect your greenery is to grab any type of covering including boxes, hay, cloths and frost blankets to lay over your plants. You can also make sure the soil is moist prior to freezing weather; plants need adequate water even when it is cold. And move as many container grown plants as you can to warmer locations.

“While farmers are always at the mercy of Mother Nature,” Mrs. Sanchez continued, “we remain eternal optimists and pray for milder-than-expected temperatures.”

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