Freezing in Frostproof: Saving Florida's Oranges

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Catharine Skipp

A grove at sunrise in Frostproof, Fla., after a freezing night with irrigation

Kyle Story was pressing through the sandy soil of an orange grove on the evening of Jan. 10, one of the coldest nights in Florida in years, and inside the cab of his four-wheel-drive Chevy pickup truck it was toasty. But the gauge on the rearview mirror warned Story that the outside temperature had dropped to 33°F (0.5°C), just one degree above freezing — and it was only 8:30 p.m. That meant he was in a race to start dozens of irrigation pumps, whose warm water would protect his crop both by insulating the bases of the trees and conducting the moisture up to the fruit and foliage via the roots.

As he followed the long list of groves and pumps he'd made for this night, Story chattered by push-to-talk cell phone with his father Vic and brother Matthew, who were operating pumps on other tracts of the family's 5,000 acres (2023 hectares) of oranges, tangerines and grapefruits, which lie across four counties in central Florida. When Matthew radioed in that some of his pump pipes had frozen, a setback that could result in a good deal of lost fruit, Kyle summoned a stoic voice and replied, "We can only do what we can do."

That sense of resignation is common these days in the one-stoplight town of Frostproof, where the Story Companies, the family's citrus enterprise, has a number of groves. Located in Polk County, which produces more citrus fruit than any place in the U.S., Frostproof got its name in the 1890s, when its trees were somehow spared some of that decade's citrus-killing winter freezes. But the moniker has been sorely tested during this month's Arctic blast, not so much because of the plummeting nighttime temps but because of how long they're lasting this year — almost two continuous weeks so far. And that has Florida farmers as well as American consumers fretful about lower harvests and higher prices for everything from orange juice to strawberries in the coming year.

The Sunshine State has a $103 billion stake in agriculture, second only to tourism. At this make-or-break stage in the state's growing season, there are $300 million worth of crops in the ground, on the trees or in the ponds. (Florida is also the second largest supplier of tropical fish.) On Jan. 10, the Storys, who own one of the largest grower and grove caretaker companies in the county, had $500,000 in potential citrus loss on the line: the fruit's juice sacs start to rupture if they are exposed to freezing temperature for too long, and they become slush-filled orbs.

Kyle, 27, has spent most of his life in the groves, which have been in the family since his great-grandfather's day. His first memories are of riding a tractor beneath mile after mile of rich, dark green foliage dappled with orange and yellow. For Kyle and his brother, punishment for misbehavior as teens meant picking fruit for an entire day. "I worked all day and hadn't even filled a tub three-fourths full," Kyle recalls, noting that a good picker can fill three or four tubs, which hold 90 lb. each, in an eight-hour day.

The irrigation teams operate on little sleep, catching a few hours in the dead of frozen night when nothing more can be done. The company's 80-plus irrigation pumps, with miles of hoses, deliver water through micro-jets from the time the temperature hits 32°F (0°C) until it returns to above freezing in the morning. By 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 10, there was nothing left but hope and luck, and tall, soft-spoken Kyle headed home for a few hours of shut-eye — sleep disturbed by the knowledge that the family had already incurred 1% crop damage. But for the eighth morning in the past 10, he was up before dawn driving through the groves.

No one in the family could remember a cold spell this protracted, not even since the freezes of the 1980s wrought more than a billion dollars in citrus losses. At 5:45 a.m. on Jan. 11, when the temperature read 25°F (-4°C), Kyle yanked an early-season orange from a tree. He sliced the top third and the juice ran freely, making him think they may have squeaked through another night. But with a second cut through the middle, Kyle shook his head. "This is not good," he said, running his knife through slush, as it's called in the industry.

As a result, it became a race to get the damaged fruit off the trees before they lost any more quality. "Now is when we throw my carefully designed harvesting plan out the window," Kyle lamented, "and pick as hard as we can to get the fruit to the processor."

In the end, the Storys' fruit damage from that night and morning — which was forecast to be the worst of the spell — was in the 2% to 5% range, not great but hardly catastrophic. But elsewhere around the state, farmers haven't been so lucky. According to Florida Agriculture Department spokesman Terence McElroy, a full assessment won't be known for days or weeks, but "we hear anecdotally that there has been substantial losses in tropical fish, significant damage to the fern industry, and citrus — especially in the northern counties — has sustained damage." The same is true, he says, in South Florida for vegetables like tomatoes and peppers. "Will it be 10%? Twenty percent? Forty percent? We just don't know," says McElroy, "but we are expecting serious damage to various sectors of the industry."

If past frosts are any gauge, that shouldn't raise U.S. juice prices by more than 2 to 3 cents a gallon, especially since Florida has hundreds of millions of gallons of the stuff stored in reserve tanks. Noncitrus fruits like strawberries, however, which have also been hard hit this month in Florida, are another story: their price per pound is forecast to rise significantly.

Meanwhile, temperatures dropped below freezing on both Jan. 11 and 12. Which means farmers like the Storys will fight the rest of the week to keep the town's name intact.