Three December chills hit Miami-Dade farmers with $54 million crop damage
By Ashley D. Torres
With an estimated $54 million in crop damage following three December cold snaps, Miami-Dade County farmers are salvaging fields and replanting as they await word on a federal agricultural disaster declaration.
On Dec. 30, Florida's then-Gov. Charlie Crist requested an agricultural disaster declaration from US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for multiple counties, including Miami-Dade, which is second in the state and 18th in the nation for agriculture production.
If granted the declaration, farmers would be eligible for low-interest emergency loans to assist with replanting damaged crops, said Charles LaPradd, the county's agricultural manager. The loans are similar to those provided to businesses by the Federal Emergency Management Agency during disasters.
In the meantime, South Dade farmers — who enjoy long agricultural seasons — replant and maintain surviving crops, and those with crop insurance or other coverage file claims.
The county's tender crops, which are fragile and easily susceptible to damage such as green beans, were the hardest hit by the December cold. As the nation's green bean capital, South Dade's green bean crops, Mr. LaPradd said, were hard hit, as were squash, papaya, boniato and bananas. In addition, the county's sweet corn crops were about 50% affected.
The estimated $54 million in December crop damage, Mr. LaPradd said, was determined by the county, US agriculture department representatives and members of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension in South Dade, who visit fields and conduct disaster assessments.
The first two cold snaps, Dec. 7-8 and Dec. 14-15, resulted in roughly $51 million in damages. The third cold front, Dec. 27-28, brought the disaster total to $54 million.
Low temperatures for Homestead during the three cold snaps, excluding wind chill, ranged from 34 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit, according to The Weather Channel online. However, many areas did dip below freezing for an extended time during the coldest days Dec. 14-15, Mr. LaPradd said.
"This cold snap was very close," said Larry Dunagan, Dade County Farm Bureau's president and Dunagan and Son Farms owner. "Another degree or two" would have been severe.
To minimize crop damage, many farmers irrigate fields to create a blanket of water that acts as an insulator.
Nonetheless, Mr. Dunagan, who is the county's only pull bean farmer, said some crops were damaged despite watering fields two to three days before the cold.
"I'm very hopeful that winter is over," Mr. Dunagan said, "and I'm planting and going on, and that's what farmers do."
The University of Florida agriculture extension office operates four Florida Automated Weather Network (FAWN) stations to provide up-to-date weather information for local farmers. The stations, which were originally funded by growers and are now allocated funds in the office's operating budget, help farmers assess risk and make educated decisions on whether to irrigate crops, which can become costly because each irrigation engine uses up to seven gallons of gasoline an hour.
"I hope we don't have any more… sleepless nights for farmers and for ourselves who are trying to help them," said Teresa Olczyk, director of the university's South Dade extension office.
The cold snaps and crop damage can also impact grocery store prices. Although higher prices translate into more revenue for local farmers, Mr. Dunagan said, the situation is "bittersweet" because rising costs can hurt farmers if consumers are discouraged from purchasing higher-priced fruits and vegetables.
Farmers, he noted, have no say in grocery store pricing.
"I'm hoping that December wasn't a pattern being formed," Mr. Dunagan added, "and that January and February won't be as bad."
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