The Jan. 7 freeze posed a challenge to Gainesville farmers, but it is the unseasonably heavy rainfall that continues to cause concern.
The first two weeks of January saw fluctuating weather with about 3.5 inches of rain and below-freezing temperatures, which has led to a difficult growing season, said John Bitter, owner and production manager of Frog Song Organics, located in Hawthorne, Fla.
Frog Song Organics has a stand at the weekly Union Street Farmers Market, which is held every Wednesday at Gainesville’s Bo Diddley Community Plaza. But the companies’ stand didn’t resemble its normal self on Jan. 8. It wasn’t as abundantly stocked, Bitter said.
“The cold plus the rain was a setback,” Bitter said. “It was more than what we’re used to.”
On Jan. 6, it took a team of five workers from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. to cover crops with frost cloth to prepare for the freeze, according to Bitter.
“It was a whole lot of labor,” he said. “We could have been weeding and doing our everyday tasks. I kept people past dark.”
Although there was a centimeter of frozen soil on the beds the next day, the cloths saved the majority of the farm’s crops in the windy, 25-degree evening. However, the farm did see some crop damage. Bitter lost 600 feet of tomatoes and discovered frost-burnt spinach leaves.
“We lost (money) in the hundreds,” he said.
Union Street Farmers Market manager Charles Lybrand said weekly vendors were still able to sell produce, except Crawford Organic Vegetables, which suffered a significant loss because the vegetables weren’t picked before the freeze. Another vendor, Norman’s Produce, lost its strawberries, he said.
The market also saw a lower-than-average customer turnout, Lybrand said.
The National Weather Service predicts more cold temperatures this week after a bout of rain swept through North Central Florida Monday night.
With machines unable to work in the muddy fields, Bitter said he can’t sell as many products at the farmers markets, potentially decreasing his profits by thousands of dollars.
“It needs to dry out so we can cultivate the weeds,” Bitter said, “or else we’ll just have small crops.”
Although production has slowed, the produce that made it through the weather can be purchased from farmers markets and restaurants. Civilization, a Gainesville restaurant specializing in ethnic cuisine, bought its vegetables before the freeze, when farmers were selling at a lower price.
“We are expecting a shortage of greens in a couple weeks,” said Ann Murray, an employee at the restaurant. “So we might have to go through our other producers. But we try to buy as much locally as possible. It’s our passion.”
Bitter said he’s practicing different techniques to combat weather changes, such as digging canals to trap rainwater before reaching crops and covering produce with hay to protect it from a freeze.
“I’ve been watching the weather religiously – it just seems to be from one extreme to the other,” he said. “So we’ll get cold, we’ll get wet, we’ll get dry, we’ll get hot. We’ll just have to deal with it.”