Winter Storm Benji swept through the deep south of the United States late last week, bringing snow and freezing rain to parts of the country normally known for their subtropical climate. Areas in the deep south of Texas experienced snow while central and northern Florida saw temperatures approaching freezing. The wintery conditions also stretched south into parts of Mexico.
For growers, it was mainly a rare visual treat as temperatures were not low enough to sustain any major damage. The snow melted quickly as ground temperatures were not cold enough for the snow to accumulate.
Growers in Texas largely escaped any damage to crops. The worst effects came from heavy rain in the days prior, causing delays to harvesting as workers were unable to access crops. Other Texas crops that are in season at this time of year include a number of root vegetables, such as onions, beets and carrots, and farmers of these crops were not affected.
More impact from rain than snow
"I’ve lived here close to 12 years and it’s the first time it’s snowed here," said Dante Galeazzi, of the Texas International Produce Association. "Most of the snow has already melted off due to a light rain, which also means it’s warming up. It didn’t stick around too long on Friday so the impact should not be more than continued delays to harvest that we have already been seeing from the rain. The coldest we’ve seen thus far in the Rio Grande has been 36-37 degrees. Now, if we start experiencing extreme cold (i.e. less than 30 degrees) for prolonged periods of time then we’ll start having issues and potential damages occurring. The rains from the last few days will have the most impact in that it will delay harvest as it is too hard for people and equipment to get in the fields when it’s muddy and wet."
Brett Erickson, of J&D Produce in Edinburg, said the mature citrus trees will, in fact, strengthen up. He also noted that pests would struggle in the weather, giving additional benefit to producers. "It did create some delays with harvest and slowed down planting a bit, however the cold snap was not severe enough to create any serious damage to the crop," he said. "Some of the younger tender plants may see a little tip burn, but the more mature items will actually get heartier due to the cold weather. It also helps push down pest pressure."
Growers in Florida had the same outlook, with low temperatures not cold or prolonged enough to sustain damage. Strawberry fields were unaffected with California Giant reporting that their strawberry production will commence in earnest from next month and therefore the forecast weather would not affect crops there.
Citrus growers, who have endured a difficult year after Hurricane Irma depleted stocks, were welcoming the colder temperatures, saying they were at just the right level that the fruit needs at this time of year. "We are expecting mid 30s in our area on Sunday morning," said Quentin Roe of Noble Citrus. "Those temperatures are exactly what we need to help both the citrus and blueberries with dormancy and fruit ripening. This will be good for us."
With the heavy winds and rain on Saturday, growers in Immokalee reported that many pepper plants laid over with the peppers exposed. "This will result in some sun scalding for fruit that is mature, close to mature and a month away from maturity," said Steve Veneziano with Oakes Farms. "The cold on Sunday morning wasn't too bad and the field temperatures were anywhere from 38 to 41 degrees, but we are anticipating colder temperatures on Monday morning. With these sustained colder temperatures squash cucumbers and eggplant face the most immediate reaction. Having the plants shocked like this will create slow growth and very light bee activity for pollination. This will result in significantly less yields on these items for the next 10-12 days compared to the prior 12 days production."
The cold weather has also affected parts of Mexico, with snow in the Central Northern region adjacent to the Texas border, and colder temperatures stretching down towards Mexico City. There are reports that some of the berry growing regions may have been affected, but it is unclear at this stage as to what extent any crops have been damaged.
The winter storm has now cleared away east of Canada, with temperatures rising quickly again in Texas and Florida.