Cold streak wreaks havoc on Miami-Dade ornamentals, $118 million to be lost
By Jacquelyn Weiner
Crop farmers aren't the only ones suffering significant losses after January's harsh cold spell.
Miami-Dade's ornamental industry, largest in the state, is estimated to lose $118 million from the chill, said Don Pybas, director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences' Miami-Dade extension.
Ornamental plants are those used primarily for aesthetic purposes, such as trees, bushes and flowering plants.
Miami-Dade County is the second-largest producer of ornamentals in the country, Mr. Pybas said, trailing only an area of California.
The estimated loss of $118 million in ornamentals is part of a total $286 million and counting that local farmers have lost from the record cold, said Charles LaPradd, Miami-Dade County's agricultural manager.
That means at least a 43% dip in sales from the $660 million average that Miami-Dade's farmers sell annually, a figure Mr. LaPradd cited at a county commission meeting.
The US Department of Agriculture has designated the county a natural disaster area, along with 59 other Florida counties, given the widespread damage to agriculture suffered from the freeze.
Such a designation could allow for funding relief like low-interest loans for affected farmers, Mr. LaPradd said at the meeting.
Most ornamentals damaged from the cold were field or container grown, he said.
Species kept in greenhouses were better protected and suffered minimally.
The last time Miami-Dade's ornamentals suffered such a severe cold streak was in 1989, Mr. Pybas said.
In addition to the drop in temperature, high winds also played a big role in damages.
"Wind sucks heat away from plants," he said.
This lessened the effectiveness of cold-prevention measures like overhead irrigation, which "creates a little microclimate around the plants to keep the temperature up a bit."
However, "It's really hard when you have 10- or 15-mile winds," he said.
And even if the plants survive, he said, aesthetic damage can make them unsalable — particularly ornamentals sold for their looks.
"Cosmetics is everything," Mr. Pybas said. "So if they have any kind of windburn or freeze or frost damage, that has an impact on their ability to sell."
Another issue is that as those damaged plants recover, he said, they may miss their market window and be too large by the time they're in selling condition.
Steve Leonard, owner of local Sturon Nursery and president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, said the chill damaged "a good 180 or 190" of the more than 200 varieties of plants he grows.
Mr. Leonard's clients spread throughout the US and into the islands and Canada, he said, and are mostly wholesalers or exterior landscape firms.
Worst damaged were tropical species like coconut palms, Mr. Leonard said, which are not as cold hearty.
"All of those took a bad hit," he said.
Overall, the record cold reduced both available inventory and the amount being shipped out because of damaged plants, Mr. Leonard said.
Any damage that needs to be cut back, he said, such as loss of leaves, brownness or spotting from overwatering, can delay the shipping date six to eight months.
"They're virtually unsellable during that period of time," Mr. Leonard said.
And in attempting to combat the cold through irrigation, he said, bacteria or fungus problems from the excess water hit some plants.
"If it wasn't directly related to cold, it was indirectly related to cold damage," he said.
On the other hand, some area ornamental growers were better off.
Alberto Estrada of area ornamental grower First Foliage said shade houses and careful irrigation practices helped preserve the company's products, most of which are house plants and landscaping plants.
First Foliage has 400 acres in Homestead and sells to about 4,000 stores, Mr. Estrada said, including big boxes like Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Lowes.
The only setback from the cold for First Foliage has been stunted growth, Mr. Estrada said.
"I wish they were growing faster by this time of year," he said. "We feel like we are behind maybe two or three weeks."
However, Mr. Estrada said, the lag has been somewhat counteracted by delayed orders from northern states waiting out their own bad weather.
"We have the orders, we have the bookings," he said. But due to harsh weather, northern customers are holding off on ordering large quantities.
And not to worry on the Valentine's Day end: shoppers should still be able to get their hands on flowers, said Bill Peters, owner of Whimsy Orchids.
Mr. Peters said he grows his orchids in a polyethylene-enclosed shade house and didn't suffer significant setbacks from January's harsh weather.
And he anticipates good sales as Valentine's Day nears:
"It'll be picking up," he said. "People are usually last-minute shoppers for that."