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How Central Florida citrus farmers use ice to protect crops from frigid cold

CLERMONT, Fla. — Many Floridians are preparing to brave the sub-40 temperatures Friday night by making hot chocolate, watching a holiday movie and calling their loved ones up north to complain about our version of cold.

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Josh Arnold, meanwhile, prepared for a long night of little sleep.

As one of the operators of Showcase of Citrus in Lake County, Arnold’s grove is facing its first make-or-break night of the 2022-2023 growing season. In extremely cold temperatures, citrus fruits freeze and trees burn, damaging them for a few seasons, if not killing them completely.

“We can handle a couple hours under 32 degrees or a little bit under 30,” Arnold explained. “Once you’re down under 25 for a couple hours, that’s when we’re really going to get some serious damage.”

READ: Temperatures dropping fast in Central Florida, will continue to fall into morning

While the official forecast for the area keeps the mercury above that, temperatures in a citrus grove aren’t uniform. Arnold said the difference between the highest and lowest parts of his grove would be about three degrees.

Most of this year’s fruit has yet to ripen or be picked. The early season freeze is a third blow to the groves this year after hurricanes Ian and Nicole. Experts predict this year’s harvest will be the worst since the Great Depression, yielding oflorida half of the 2021-2022 season.

READ: Surfing Santas to brave frigid cold for annual event Saturday

To prevent damage, Arnold and his family planned to turn on the irrigation to the entire grove at midnight, spraying the trees in a coat of relatively warm water from a nearby lake.

The goal is to cover the core of each tree in a layer of ice, protecting it from chillier outside air in the same way people build igloos. Arnold will also ride around each grove, periodically checking temperatures, trees and fruit and adjusting his methods throughout the night.

“It takes almost 20 years for a citrus tree to become fully mature,” he explained. “If we do get burns and damage to the tops and the fruit, at least we didn’t lose the tree completely.”

READ: Here’s where you can find cold-weather shelters in Central Florida

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Adam Poulisse, WFTV.com

Adam Poulisse joined WFTV in November 2019.

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