Local strawberry farmers and gardeners preparing for cold weather

With freeze watches issued for most of the Tampa Bay area, strawberry farmers are doing what they can to protect their livelihood.

For nearly 50 years, Carl Grooms has operated and owned Fancy Farms in Plant City. He’s weathered many seasons, including record cold Christmases in 1983 and 1989.

"Those were very, very severe freezes and for multiple hours," Grooms said. "I mean 12-14 hours straight putting water on these crops and still lost lots of it."

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He’s hoping that is not the case this year as he once again braces for very cold weather. 

"To lose any berries at this stage of the game, this is called early season and the prices are fairly decent now. And that would be a financial impact," Grooms said. "Sometimes you expect some loss, but if it's, you know, 40, 50%, that's significant. I mean, that will be a deciding factor of whether or not we're going to pay our bills and make a profit on this given year."

The staff is currently picking the berries that are ready now as well as checking equipment and the irrigation system, but the wind will be a big factor in which way things go.

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"The problem is you’ve got to create an ice coverage over the plant and fruit to protect what’s under it," Grooms said. "If the wind is blowing, and it gets down to the mid to high 20s, we will not be able to get a nice coat of ice on all the plant and blooms and berries. There will be loss at that point."

Strawberry farmers aren’t the only ones bracing for the weather. Gardeners are taking steps to make sure their plants survive too. 

"Literally people from neighborhood to neighborhood could get three, four, five degrees colder than their neighbor so you kind of have to take all those factors into consideration," David Whitwam of Whitwam Organics said. "If you have any extreme cold sensitive plants, and you can, the best thing to do, actually the only thing that’s going to save them for sure is to bring them inside."

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If that’s not possible, he recommends using a frost blanket or sheet to cover them but with the prolonged cold he said they will also need a source of heat.

"Some people are wrapping their plants and Christmas lights right now," Whitwam said. "They're literally taking the Christmas lights down and putting them around their plants and then wrapping them. Now you have a cover, and the cover is holding that heat. And now if you're covering all the way to the ground, there is some radiant heat that could be coming up from the ground."

He said plastic should be a last resort, because it can exacerbate any damage caused by the cold.