icy fern volusia cold
An icy fern photographed while the sun is setting.

‘It’s going to be a test of men and machines’

The past few days have been merely a warm-up act — no pun intended — for what is coming soon.

Another blast of Arctic air means a wintry weekend is in store, packing a hard freeze and the prospect of damage to Volusia County’s agriculture.

“They’re predicting a low of 24 degrees Friday night, 24 Saturday night and 28 Sunday night,” David Register, of FernTrust Inc., told The Beacon.

Temperatures in low spots in the terrain, known as cold pockets, may be even lower than the predicted numbers.

Register said so far in the current cold snap, fern growers have been able to protect their crops. This weekend may be different.

Register said foliage growers will be staying up late at night and working hard to protect their crops and their livelihood against the bitter cold. The fern now maturing is the one that florists around the country are relying on to adorn Valentine’s Day arrangements, and severe damage would result in higher prices for flower gifts on the special occasion.

The primary way of safeguarding the tender plants is to spray water on them to keep them from suffering sub-freezing temperatures. A layer of ice on the ferns or other crops shields them from temperatures below the 32-degree freezing mark.

“We might have to run pumps all night Friday, all day Saturday, Saturday night, and Sunday night,” Register said. “It’s going to be a test of men and machines.”

One of the worst problems growers could face is the breakdown of pumps needed for spraying the water on crops.

While nighttime temperatures will be below freezing, one unknown factor is wind. Low wind or no wind makes crops vulnerable to frost, while noticeable winds mean more water will be needed to freeze-protect the plants.

“When the temperature drops below 30, it becomes your enemy. When you build up the ice, the weight of it will break the fern, just like the weight of ice will break limbs on a tree,” Register explained.

Also in the farming sector, the January chill that brought frost earlier this week deprives livestock of their fresh grass.

“The grass is gone. If you’re a hay producer, right now your business is going to be good, because the frost dried up the pastures,” Volusia County Agricultural Extension Service Director Kalin Taylor said.

Taylor said cattle owners will be in the market for molasses, as well as hay. The cattle feed on the syrupy molasses to boost their metabolism and keep warm on the cold nights.

Taylor said her agency has not fully assessed the cold damage from recent days, pending the passing of the imminent cold wave.

Farmers who suffer losses from the severe cold this year will have to wait until next year for any local property-tax relief.

“It would be 2023,” Volusia County Deputy Appraiser Jan Cornelius said.

Still, she said, the agricultural exemption remains on active farms, whose land is taxed at a lower rate.

The Florida Legislature, Cornelius noted, has been favorable to owners of agricultural land.

“The ag classification remains,” she said.


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