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Strawberry farmers water all night to beat season's first freeze | Environment

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Strawberry farmers water all night to beat season's first freeze
Strawberry farmers water all night to beat season's first freeze

Dover, Florida -- "I feel like it is going to be another one of them years," said Matt Parke, shaking his head as he looked out at his crops at Parkesdale Farms in Dover.

Sprinklers sprayed warm groundwater over the farm's acres of green strawberry plants throughout the night Monday and up until after sunrise Tuesday morning.

The last thing strawberry farmers like Parke want is a repeat of the January freeze that lasted an unprecedented eleven days straight. "Last year, it was a disaster," Parke reflected.

Sadly, this season is off to a similar start. It is the first week of December and farmers are already scrambling to make sure sprinklers and water pipes are working. The reason? As soon as temperatures drop near freezing, they have to water the plants to protect them.

"What we'll try to do is put a layer of ice on top of the berries and what that does in return, it acts like an igloo, it keeps it above freezing in between the ice and the berry," explains Parke.

The wind worsens the problem because it blows the water around, so the berries don't get consistent coverage and the cold burns them.

It turns out the timing of this freeze couldn't be worse because harvesting just started a couple of weeks ago. Parkesdale pickers filled a pallet of berries on Monday.

"We got a lot of flower out there and that's what we're really trying to protect is our flower because its so sensitive. The flower gets burned real easy and then it will be a deformed berry or won't produce a berry and once that happens, well, that was what you were going to be picking in a couple weeks," said Parke.

Strawberry farmers cannot afford another bad year. While the freeze ruined some of the berries last season, the ones that made it ended up ripening at the same time as the rest of the berries, instead of on the important staggered system. The result was a surplus of strawberries and that drove down the prices.

Parke says he hopes this freeze is not a sign of the season.

"It started early this year. It might just be a fluke, but who knows. You never know, really, with the weather."

Also unprecedented with the freeze from earlier this year was the number of sinkholes reported.  Geologists say there's a direct link between the farmers' continuous use of water for freeze protection and sinkholes.

On December 14th, SWFMUD's governing board will vote on major changes to use of water for agricultural purposes.  The board is expected to pass a new rule with a goal of reducing a farmer's use of water for freeze protection by 20 percent over the next 10 years.

The SWFMUD board meeting starts at 9:00 a.m. on December 14 and is located at the district headquarters in Brooksville.  The meeting is open to the public.


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