Farmer weighs the cost of prevention vs. odds of survival

BELLE GLADE — After staying up all night, having slept one hour in the past 26, Tom Perryman's stomach was growling Wednesday.

The manager of sweet corn and radish crops at Hundley Farms Inc. in Belle Glade, shrugged his shoulders as he said, "I had a sandwich for dinner."

That was at about 7 p.m.

Since the week began, Perryman and the Hundley Farms staff have been preparing as much as they could for freezing temperatures that broke 1962 records. Perryman, who has been with the farm for 16 years, spent Tuesday night monitoring 130 acres of sweet corn, not knowing if the crop would make it through the freeze.

"Farmers don't gamble," Perryman said, "because everything they do is a gamble."

Tuesday was spent preparing for that night's freeze. Tiki torches were placed outside to guide the helicopters that would warm the crops. Farmhands were told where to be and what to do.

Then they were told to try to get some sleep so they would be rested for night monitoring. Perryman, though, didn't sleep.

He was in meetings to decide whether Hundley Farms should have helicopters fly over the corn, pushing warm air down.

The decision: Helicopters should start at 10 p.m. and fly over all 130 acres.

Each acre, Perryman said, produces 360 crates of corn, each crate holding 48 ears. One helicopter flying for just one hour costs an average of $1,000.

"It's just a matter of time knowing when to stop and when to keep going," he said.

After monitoring temperatures and ice all night, they decided to stop flying about 3:15 a.m. They couldn't raise the temperature above 29 degrees. The night's low was 27.

"You have to know when to cut your losses," Perryman said.

Hours later, while driving on the edge of the fields of sweet corn in his white Chevrolet pick-up, he pointed to corn planted a little more than two months ago.

"That brown damage is from the freeze last week," he said of the cornstalks' leaves. "A lot of it's done; some may come through though."

Perryman got out of his truck and walked a few feet down the row, grabbed an ear off the stalk and peeled back the husks. The ear, he said, was mature, showing good white and yellow kernels - what farmers call "coloring up."

But it was too early to tell if the corn will be marketable or not, he said. He hopes to know by Monday at the earliest.

Perryman ripped off another ear of corn and pointed out the dark streaks on the leaves of the stalk - the sign of freezing. But the ear of corn itself was fine.

"You could take that on a grill and roll it in some aluminum foil," he said, smiling. "Good eatin'."

Temperatures were expected to drop again Wednesday night, and Perryman said the plan was the same. Everyone will get together and decide if there's enough surviving crop that would benefit from the helicopters and if the cost is worth it.

"You can't be emotionally attached to the crop," he said. "Which isn't easy to do when you spend so much time growing it."

After decisions are made, Perryman plans on trying to get some sleep.

"Do I think we lost everything? No," he said. "But, pretty close."