MIAMI (AP) – Farmers rushed to protect citrus and other crops Tuesday as Florida braced for plunging temperatures, with the governor even lifting certain agricultural regulations as a precaution.

Temperatures were expected to drop below freezing in much of the state Tuesday night, hitting the lower to mid-20s for a few hours in many areas. Wind chill factors were expected to dive into the teens Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

Gov. Charlie Crist issued an order late Monday relaxing restrictions in getting harvested crops moved to processing centers.

Officials were most concerned about the state’s large citrus industry, though the state produces nearly 300 crops and much of the nation’s domestically grown fruits and vegetables during the winter.

“If it only stays below freezing for four to six hours, we’re OK, but after about six hours it starts to do its damage. If it freezes the oranges, obviously they’re no good,” Florida agriculture spokeswoman Liz Compton said.

The early harvest of citrus starts in November and December, Compton said. But beans, corn, cucumbers and eggplant are also being harvested and could be affected, Compton said.

With New Year’s Day temperatures in South Florida still in the 80s, sunbathers got in one last tan Tuesday before temperatures were expected to drop there by about 20 degrees.

Freeze warnings were posted down to areas just north of Tampa and Orlando, according to the National Weather Service.

In northern Florida, high temperatures Wednesday and Thursday are forecast to remain in the 40s. Central Florida is expected to see 50s, and only 60s can be expected in the Keys and southeast Florida, emergency management officials said.

Some of the coldest weather was expected in the Florida Panhandle, where temperatures are forecast to plummet into the 20s.

Forecasters anticipated potential freezes from Wednesday evening into Thursday. Five-day forecasts had the cold snap ending by the weekend.

Many of the state’s 40,000 commercial farmers were making preparations. One farmer told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel he was readying helicopters to fly over his fields if the temperature drops below freezing; the blades can circulate air and prevent frost from forming. Other farmers were contemplating turning on irrigation systems, which can also ward off frost, and some were harvesting early.

The governor’s order relaxed size and weight restrictions on commercial vehicles taking vulnerable crops to processing sites.

Some fishermen were not going out because of expected high winds. Dive shop operators, too, were looking at potential high winds later in the week and the possibility they could create choppy seas and stir up sand, which affects visibility.

AP-ES-01-01-08 2151EST

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