It’s becoming routine now for Florida’s vegetable-growing areas to be visited by an unusually early Arctic air mass, and this past December was no different, with below-freezing temperatures being felt for several mornings in early and mid-December.

The Florida fresh vegetable industry had previously suffered severe freeze losses during an extended cold snap in early January of 2010 and a shorter hard freeze during January 2009.

Precise impacts are unknown at this time, but fresh vegetable markets will likely be unsettled for the next few months, with additional imports from places such as Mexico partially filling any market gaps that appear, according to the USDA’s most recent Vegetable and Melons Outlook.

Prior to the recent freezing temperatures in Florida, the outlook for fresh vegetables this winter indicated improved yields and supplies. At the same time, demand was expected to remain sluggish as consumers remain conservative, especially with regard to away from home meals. Assuming freeze damage is less severe than last January, the winter price outlook generally favors prices that are historically strong, but average just below the freeze-affected highs of a year earlier.

Although a portion of the crops may have been saved by crop protection schemes such as flying helicopters and applying row covers, it is likely that thousands of acres of tender warm-season vegetables such as snap beans, sweet corn, tomatoes, squash, and peppers suffered severe damage (burned leaves, bloom drop, etc), with a substantial percentage of mature plants destroyed.

Prior to the first hard freeze on the evening of Dec. 13, many growers took the opportunity to pick and store crops that were at a harvestable stage. With weather expected to improve, growers must now deal with harvest delays (due to lack of growth and loss of blooms during the cold stretch), vine and foliage damage (leading to reduced yields for surviving plants and increased disease susceptibility), and fruit scarring (leading to lower grade fruit and reduced value).

It takes some time after a freeze before growers can adequately assess the damage to crops and decide when and whether to replant, with the threat of further cold weather possible through February.