The second record cold snap in two years froze oranges "as hard as baseballs" Monday and may have destroyed thousands of trees in the northern section of Florida's $1-billion citrus belt.
"It looks like the damage will be extensive in both citrus and vegetables," said Agriculture Commissioner Doyle Conner.
One grower reported a low of 11 degrees in a citrus grove near Mascotte, in Lake County. Temperatures ranged from that into the 20s and 30s in southern sections and growers expected crop-killing temperatures in the teens again overnight and into today.
"One more night like this could pretty well wipe us all out up here," said grower Duke Crittenden, who owns 4,000 acres of citrus, much of it in the northern tier heavily hit by the 1983 Christmas freeze.
The state's large winter vegetable industry escaped with little damage Sunday night and Monday, but could also be in trouble with another night of frost, an industry spokesman said.
Citrus and vegetable growers in Louisiana and Texas, whose crops were damaged by a freeze last year, were also keeping watch Monday as cold weather engulfed their area.
By Monday in Florida, "there was some ice and cold damage to carrots, tomatoes and cabbage north of a line from Naples to Palm Beach," said Bernie Hamel of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Assn. "South of that was not bad. But now, it's a wait-and-see situation."
The cold also affected tourism, Florida's other major industry. South Florida beaches, normally a sunny haven from northern winters, were virtually deserted Monday as brisk winds made seaside temperatures seem even colder.
The cold added to the woes of growers worried about citrus canker, the bacterial disease discovered in plant nurseries last summer. Thousands of young trees from those nurseries have had to be destroyed by fire to prevent the canker from spreading, and many of the destroyed plants had been replacements for trees killed in the 1983 freeze.
That two-day cold spell caused more than $1 billion in tree and fruit losses, according to industry economists. Preliminary damage estimates on the latest disaster may begin to come in at the end of the week.
Conner noted that this is the fourth crop-killing freeze in five years. "I just cannot recall when we've had this much of a freeze threat," he said, adding that "the worst is yet to come."
About 75% of the orange crop is still being harvested, and much of it can be safely processed into juice, even if it is frozen, if it can be picked before it thaws and begins to rot. Growers expected to harvest a relatively small crop of 119 million 90-pound boxes.
But losses due to tree damage would be more severe and longer-lasting.
Field inspectors for Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest growers' organization, said tree leaves were already beginning to curl in some northern groves.
"There will be significant fruit loss in the upper two-thirds of the production area," said Citrus Mutual spokesman Earl Wells.
The 1983 freeze damaged or destroyed trees in some 250,000 acres in the 11 upper counties of the 760,000-acre citrus belt. Many of those trees had to be severely pruned and were just starting to recover when hit by this freeze.
"There was little fruit to lose up here," said Crittenden, whose office is about 40 miles north of Orlando. "But some of what there was was frozen as hard as baseballs."
He said growers "who were nursing their trees back were hurt severely. . . . This weather could have really put the finishing touches on the industry in Lake County," which produces more fruit than any other county except Polk and was the most heavily hit in 1983.
More growers may decide to join those who decided to quit, grow something else or move farther south as a result of last year's unusually cold weather. Crittenden said he and a group of investors will soon begin growing citrus in the Dominican Republic.
Orlando-area grower Jerry Chicone said: "If it's going to be cold like this every year, I'm not going to keep pouring money into it."
Ray Prewett, executive vice president of Texas Citrus Mutual, said damage in the citrus-growing Rio Grande valley area could be extensive.
"It could suddenly be worse than anything we've had this winter," Prewett said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed, we've been hit again and again and we're still waiting like everybody else."
Growers were apprehensive in Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, which stretches about 100 miles from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico.
"If it gets down around 10 degrees, I'm afraid we're going to lose the entire citrus crop in Plaquemines Parish," said Johnny Becnel, a major grower in the area.