CLERMONT – Benny McLean of Uncle Matt’s Organic, a juice company, has been in the citrus business his whole life.
His father grew citrus, and McLean said he was out in the groves as “soon as I could hold a hoe.”
Though the 66-year-old production manager has worked in the business his whole life, the winter months still cause him plenty of worry.
“I’m always concerned until Easter, and once we’re past Easter we kind of feel out of the woods,” he said.
Easter probably seemed a long way off for many local citrus growers this week as Lake County experienced below-freezing temperatures Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade organization representing citrus growers, is investigating the cold weather’s impact on citrus crops throughout Central Florida.
“We expect some damage,” said Andrew Meadows, a Florida Citrus Mutual spokesman. “How much, we don’t know right now.”
Meadows said it will take a few days for growers to assess the damage to their crops.
Temperatures need to drop to at least 28 degrees for four or more hours before citrus crops suffer, he said. In Clermont, it was about 30 degrees overnight Wednesday and Thursday.
Meadows doubts the low temperatures will wipe out citrus operations in Lake and other parts of Central Florida.
“We’re still going to have quality crop, quality juice,” he said.
McLean’s biggest concern is ice in the fruit. This happens when juice inside becomes frozen and the oranges and grapefruits can no longer be sold as fresh fruit. They still can be sold for juicing, however.
McLean said some of his colder locations — in low-lying areas between the hills on his property — had ice in the fruit. The citrus groves in low areas are especially vulnerable because cold air settles in those pockets.
Uncle Matt’s Organic, which has about 500 acres in Clermont and 500 acres in Polk County, has only one or two groves in such cold locations, McLean said.
Though December and January typically are the key months for freezes, McLean said February also can be a month when crops are vulnerable.
“The majority of the citrus up here in the Clermont area will start blooming in the end of February,” he said. “So if we get a late frost or a bad cold in that critical period, we lose next year’s crop” in addition to what’s still left on the trees.
To protect their fruit, Meadows said growers cover their trees in a protective frost by watering them. McLean said that as soon as it goes below 35 degrees, he turns on the irrigation system and keeps it on until sunrise.
“The formation of ice actually creates energy, which can raise the temperature up,” Meadows said. “In turn, it protects the fruit and the trees.”
McLean said water isn’t always a good thing. If it’s too windy, the energy will be blown away, and all that’s left is water as cold as the wind chill. “You end up getting wood damage on your tree,” he said.
The weekend should be warmer. Tonight is expected to hit a low of 46 degrees, more than 10 degrees higher than this week’s lows in the 30s. Sunday night should even be warmer, with a low in the 50s.
Freezes during the 1980s cost Florida’s citrus industry hundreds of millions of dollars in lost crops and wiped out about 120,000 acres of citrus trees in Lake — 90 percent of the county’s acreage.
Lake never bounced back and has about 15,000 acres, according to 2006 census estimates. In 1996, Lake had an estimated 21,000 acres.
Lake produced about 6.5 million boxes of citrus during the 2005-06 season, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The state produced 174 million boxes that season.
Amy Mariani can be reached at email@example.com or 352-742-5919.