Sam Accursio and his sons started their field-side vigil at midnight.
With one eye on the weather and the other on their green bean crop, the Redland-based farmers nervously waited in Friday’s predawn hours to see if temperatures would dip low enough to harm their vegetables on the final, chilliest night of South Florida’s cold snap. By the time the sun rose, it was clear: They made it through unscathed.
By his measurements, the coldest it got was 34 degrees, not enough to freeze and damage the delicate vegetables. Although temperatures dipped lower farther north, early indications show that the Sunshine State’s agriculture industry is OK.
“We dodged a bullet,” said Charles LaPradd, agricultural manager for Miami-Dade County.
South Miami-Dade’s agricultural sector has a $2.7 billion economic impact on the county. Low temperatures could devastate the acres of beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, onions and strawberries that depend on a frost-free growing season.
While farmers in other parts of the United States plant crops that can withstand — or even rely on — low temperatures, the Redland farmers specialize in crops that can’t handle the cold. Besides California, South Florida is the only other area in the nation producing large-scale harvests in the winter.
“This is the best time of year for us,” said Margie Pikarsky, the owner of Bee Heaven Farm in Redland. “We’re producing things other areas can’t.”
Her five-acre organic farm survived the cold, but as she and her team packaged their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes Friday, Pikarsky said some of her suppliers weren’t as lucky.
Her bell peppers were green tinged with orange, a nod to their early harvest as her Punta Gorda suppliers raced to beat the frost. The yellow starfruit neatly stowed away were knocked off their trees by the chilly wind, which Pikarsky said might have caused more damage than the cold.
To some extent, farmers can protect against the occasional freeze. They can cover their crops, harvest them early or, most commonly, spray them continuously with water until it warms up outside. The water comes out of the ground warmer than the air around it, which keeps the plants from freezing. Too much watering, however, can cause diseases and root rot, like some farmers saw during the 2010 freeze.
Past a certain temperature, there’s not much to be done.
“If it’s down to 25, forget it,” Pikarsky said.
Accursio, whose family started the farm in 1948, remembers the years that frost took his whole crop, including 1977, when it snowed in Miami. On Christmas Eve 1989, “we lost everything,” he said.
This season is doing better.
“Citrus, strawberries and most of our vegetables appear to have come through in good shape,” Florida’s Comissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said in a statement. “So if we can go ahead and get this cold front on out of here and get some of this good sunshine back, we’ll have dodged a bullet, which is long overdue because we have not dodged many bullets lately — between Hurricane Irma and the other challenges facing Florida agriculture.”