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Freeze has benefits for some Hernando farmers

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Published:   |   Updated: January 8, 2014 at 10:14 AM

BROOKSVILLE - As predicted late last week by the National Weather Service, temperatures hit a seasonal low of 31 degrees Monday night in Hernando County.

Come 7 a.m. Tuesday with the wind chill taken into account, 21 degree temperatures bit into the south Florida area, and had local farmers and residents covering their crops and plants, with many taking cover themselves.

"I hate freezes," said Dee Blaha, co-owner of Rabbits Inc., a 20-acre community support agricultural operation in Masaryktown.

Blaha's husband, Mike, with the help of staff, spent much of Monday covering strawberry crops with plastic tarps and sandbags in anticipation for the cold.

After feeding all the rabbits, swine, chickens and crops - which the Blahas said range from A to Z in nearly everything except asparagus and Brussels sprouts - they shut all the water off and drained the lines to prevent the pipes from freezing and breaking.

"As far as loss goes, it's hit or miss," Mike Blaha said of the harvest. "Sometimes when they predict cold weather it's not as low, or the wind doesn't last as long, but it's not as bad as if it was real, real still, and then the temperature drops."

Blueberry farmers will likely take a hit, he said.

Blackberries are another matter.

"To get food produce off the blackberry plant, you need a couple hundred chill hours, and we're not even close," said co-owner of Sweetfields Farm Inc., Ted Kessel, also of Masaryktown. "Last year we were borderline making it, and this year we're not even close, so we do welcome the cold weather."

Another upside to the low temperatures, for organic production anyway that negates the use of poisons and pesticides, is a good freeze helps kick back bugs that pester farmers in the spring.

"That will actually set the egg production back; the frost will actually kill them," Kessel said. "When it's warm the bugs keep producing through the winter, and the cold will actually slow that down and kick them into dormancy."

That goes for worms, moths, fungus and the notorious white fly, farmers say.

"It's one of those balances: you lose a lot of bugs, but you could also lose a lot of plants," said Mike Blaha. "Cold is the biggest thing. It can definitely ruin you."

The worst freeze Mike Blaha has known in his 63 years on the land was a winter experienced in the 1920s by his grandparents, he said, when they had 800 acres of orchard planted.

"It proceeded to freeze, and it devastated," he said. "I'd have to say that was the worst as far as Masaryktown goes."

Crops aside, a 21-degree reading with wind chill pales in comparison to current northern storm systems taking place in cities like Chicago, which according to the NWS experienced -30-degree temperatures Tuesday.

According to the Chicago Tribune, $14.37 million has been spent already plowing and salting streets, nearly maxing the city's budget of $16.3 million for snow removal with another two months of winter left.

The freezing, early-morning temperatures in Hernando County on the first day back to school from winter break had some parents wondering what to prepare for with their children waiting outside for buses.

Students idled at bus stops Tuesday morning wearing jackets, hats and gloves, and according to the school district's transportation department, several parents called ahead Monday, inquiring into whether buses would be heated.

"The drivers come in early and do a pre-trip early anyway, so they will start the buses and heat them," said Transportation Director, Doug Compton. "We will have extra mechanics (Tuesday). We're doing everything we can to make sure we stay on time so kids aren't standing out there in the cold."

The weather is expected to reach a high of 62 degrees today, a high of 74 Thursday, and into the 80s by Friday, according to the NWS.

If this year is anything like past years, said transportation staff, then there should be a lot of jackets left behind on buses come Thursday.

mreinig@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5271

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