Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson is alerting the state's agricultural producers that highway restrictions have been eased so that they can quickly harvest and transport crops that are vulnerable to the freezing weather that continue to affect Florida.

On Tuesday, Bronson requested that Governor Charlie Crist declare a state of emergency and issue an Executive Order directing the state Department of Transportation to relax the weight, height, length and width restrictions for commercial vehicles transporting vulnerable crops to processing sites. Governor Crist signed Executive Order No. 10-01, which took effect Jan. 5, 2010, and remains in effect for 14 days.

"Transporting the vulnerable crops to processing sites without delay is necessary to save them from destruction and the relaxation of the restrictions on the weight, height, length and width for commercial vehicles transporting these crops is necessary to protect the agricultural interests of the state," Governor Crist stated in the Executive Order.

After reviewing data from around the state to assess the impact the severe cold weather is having on crops, Bronson requested the Governor issue the Executive Order when it became apparent the freezing weather would continue for several more days and that growers needed to harvest and transport crops as quickly as possible to help lessen their losses.

"This freezing weather has created a serious situation for our state's agricultural producers, who now must rush to harvest their crops to prevent further losses," Bronson said. "The temporary easing of highway restrictions enables farmers to more quickly transport their crops to processing facilities and help avoid financial disaster."

Bronson has alerted organizations representing the state's agricultural producers and trucking interests of the governor's action so they can load and transport crops in accordance with the relaxed highway restrictions.

"Florida's growers produce nearly all our nation's domestically produced fresh fruits and vegetables during the winter," Bronson said. "There is much at stake, both for our state's farmers and for consumers all across the United States who count on Florida to provide them with fresh domestic produce in the winter."

For more information about the weight, height, length and width restrictions for vehicles transporting crops on Florida's highways, visit http://www.Florida-Agriculture.com.

The severe cold weather threatens many of Florida's crops including: bell peppers, snap beans, cabbage, celery, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, endive, escarole, grapefruit, lettuce, oranges, variety peppers, radishes, squash, strawberries, tangerines, tomatoes, sugarcane, a wide variety of horticulture, and aquaculture crops such as tropical fish. In many cases, producers won't know the full extent of damage for several weeks.

Many growers in affected areas are implementing freeze mitigation procedures in an attempt to help reduce their losses. Some methods being used to help protect some crops include:

• Covering: Various materials, from simple hay and soil to complex industrial materials, are used to provide a physical barrier to freezing temperatures.

• Irrigation: By applying water to crops, the heat that is lost from the crop to the surrounding air is replaced with the heat that is formed as water changes to ice. Operational costs for irrigation are comparatively low, as the irrigation systems are often already in place for routine use. Disadvantages include damage due to ice buildup on limbs and problems resulting from over-irrigation.

• Heaters: Primarily fueled by underground propane lines, heaters can be used to warm the air around trees in groves, crops in open fields, and plants in greenhouses.

• Wind machines: This method circulates warmer upper air down to crop level. Wind machines are sometimes used in conjunction with heaters. Helicopters are sometime used as wind machines.

Fish farmers become concerned about potential losses when pond temperatures drop below 60 degrees. Fish begin dying at 55 degrees and massive losses occur at 50 degrees. Some loss-mitigation methods employed by fish farmers include:

• Relocation: Cold-sensitive farm-raised fish can be protected by moving them from open ponds to enclosed ponds. Fish farmers that have only open ponds sometimes increase the stocking density of the fish and cover the ponds with greenhouse covers, but this method is only marginally effective.

• Recirculation and heating: Ground water, which remains around 72 degrees F, can be re-circulated through ponds where fish are farm-raised. The water in some enclosed ponds can be heated, but this approach can only be used as a temporary measure because of high costs.

• Nutrition: Temporary nutritional supplementation, known as boosting, can be employed to help farm-raised fish better withstand temperature drops. Advance notice of impending cold weather is needed to employ this approach.