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Cold snap experiment could change how farmers face freezes | News

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Cold snap experiment could change how farmers face freezes

Lakeland, Florida -- This cold night could make history.

Cold snaps have been killing crops in the Tampa Bay area for generations. But a patch of blueberries growing in Lakeland could be changing that fate as we speak.

If those berries survive this past night, it could mean a big boost to agriculture and farmers all over Florida.

The current number one method to keep blueberries, strawberries, and citrus from going bad during freezes is for farmers to pump tons of water out of the ground and onto the plants, then cross their fingers.

It's not 100 percent reliable, but generally the warm water and the freezing process generate enough heat to preserve the crops.

Instead of constantly spraying water on one set of blueberry bushes at Shady Oak Farm in Lakeland, University of Florida researchers have applied a treatment called Desikote.

That coating allowed a thin shield of ice to form on the berries as the temperature hit 28 degrees at the farm early Monday morning.

Signs are already encouraging. Rather than dropping to the ground as totally unprotected berries would during a freeze, the Desikote-treated berries stayed put on their branches.

Once the weather warms up, the Desikote treatment can be washed off, leaving no residual amount behind on the berry, said Retta Baucom, who runs the farm and is proud of her collaboration with UF scientists on the experiment.

Finding a way to avoid using massive amounts of groundwater isn't just good for agriculture. During 2010's record-setting 11-day freeze event, farmers pumped so much water out of the ground that it created major consequences for the community.

More than 750 wells went dry in the Plant City-Dover area, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District. And researchers say the constant pumping contributed to the 140 sinkholes reported in the area.

Baucom says she'll have a good idea of whether the potentially revolutionary blueberries made it through the freeze and will be right for selling in two or three weeks.


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