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Florida Fruit Growers Prepare For Freeze

Florida fruit growers readied for another blast of freezing temperatures Sunday after escaping the previous two icy nights with only minor damage to their multibillion-dollar crops.

Temperatures in parts of the state could drop below freezing before dawn Monday, the National Weather Service said. It posted a freeze warning for several inland counties in the northern and central parts of Florida.

In addition to the low temperatures, wind gusts of up to 30 mph in some areas could disrupt the watering systems that protect delicate fruit with a glaze of ice.

Fruit and vegetable sales are worth millions to Florida's farmers. The $9 billion Florida citrus industry has struggled with two rough hurricane seasons and fruit diseases, but so far has avoided a freeze like the one that devastated California citrus last month.

Farmers around Florida said their oranges and strawberries had weathered the cold so far, but bean and corn growers in South Florida said their losses have been significant.

"We lost plenty," said Steve Williams, president of Knight Management in Belle Glade. "One field of 233 acres of beans is completely dead."

Grower Roy Brown estimated that he lost about half his peach crop in the weekend freezes, but he said his strawberries had held up.

"You've got to roll with the punches," Brown said.

Last month, icy temperatures withered as much as three-quarters of California's citrus crop and many of its other winter crops, from avocados to fresh-cut flowers.

Florida's agricultural industry suffered an estimated $2.2 billion in damage to its crops and farming structure from four hurricanes in 2005. Last year, a mid-February freeze cut production, as did the spread of diseases that kill trees and damage fruit.