There’s good news and bad news emerging in the wake of a devastating three-day late season freeze that blasted Southeastern crops last week with temperatures in the low teens and 20s and high winds that made protection efforts difficult.

Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina blueberry crops are decimated with losses between 80-85 percent of the crop. Peaches took a pounding as well, though it’s too soon to tell what percentage of the crop will survive. Southern vegetables fared better with about a 15 percent loss across the board. Strawberries also came through in good shape since mitigation efforts are more effective for that crop.

March frosts are no stranger to Southeastern states. What made this one so damaging was an exceptionally mild winter that had lured plants and trees to come on two weeks or more earlier than usual across the board.

“Blueberries were 10-14 days ahead because of the warm winter so they had heavier damage than other crops,” said Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “Early variety peaches had already bloomed and most of our peach guys, I can’t say 100 percent, have drip irrigation rather than the old fashioned overhead watering, so spraying the trees and covering the fruit with ice [for protection] wasn’t an option. Most peach growers lost a large percentage of that early crop. What we don’t know is how much of the later varieties will make it. It will be two or three weeks before they start blooming and we see how that’s going to come out.

“The veg crop, a lot of pepper was in the ground, some tomatoes, some squash, watermelon, some of the other vegetables but the best estimate is only 30 percent of the crop had been planted,” Hall said. “Those guys probably lost 40-60 percent of what was in the ground. That doesn’t sound bad when you talk about totality but that 30 percent is your highest price, your early crop.”

‘We stared in the face of despair…’

Reports from North Carolina were grim as well.

“I wish I had better news but it looks like across the board we have about an 80 percent loss in blueberries,” said Dexter Hill with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. “The growers know how to frost protect but the combination of wind and cold was more than the overhead irrigation could handle. The nozzles were freezing up, the wind was blowing the water around, it was something they just couldn’t handle.

“Because of warm weather in February all the crops in North Carolina were further along probably by two or three weeks, then they got hit by extreme cold not just one night but three nights,” Hill said. Strawberries got hit a little bit but they’re still going to have a good year. Peaches, it’s too early to tell. I’m going to give them a little more time. I know there was some damage done, but we’re still waiting to see what the final count is. The clingstone early variety was probably hit some but the freestone mid-season and late variety I think will be in much better condition and may have come through it all together. With peaches, it all depends on location.”

After visiting Georgia farms, state Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black told a panel from the Georgia House of Representatives March 22, “We stared in the face of despair. Not lost hope but we saw hurt and we saw some folks that are in a predicament. The blueberry crop is worth $400 million and they had the promise of the best crop they ever had. With even 75 percent loss that’s $300 million. And that impacts the bottom line through rural communities all across this state. We’ve got some losses and delay in vegetables, a setback but generally speaking it’s not quite as bad but it’s still pretty rough. Peaches may come out a little better than we originally thought, maybe north of 50 percent.”

In South Carolina, the nation’s leading peach producer, “There still could be about 10-15 percent of a normal crop and we’re going to have peaches in July and August. They’ll obviously be in limited quantities but there might still be some potential for some of the late varieties that had not started blooming yet,” said Stephanie Sox from the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.

“Strawberries fared very well, about 85 percent of the crop is okay. They’re such a high value crop and grown in smaller acreage than 3000 acres of peach trees so it’s a lot easier to take preventative measures,” Sox said. “Blueberries are pretty much a complete loss, but we’re still waiting to hear about some of the blueberries in the lower part of the state. They may have fruit but the quality might be altered.”

Shortages could prop up market prices for growers

While blueberries will not return, the strawberry crop in all three states survived in good shape. Peach growers are optimistic they may yet make a crop. And the bite out of the vegetable crop could well yet benefit growers by propping up markets.

Duke Lane III of major peach and pecan producer Lane Southern Orchards in Ft. Valley, GA said the state had a more moderate winter than South Carolina so Georgia trees were not as far along in development – meaning they were less susceptible to cold damage.

“We’re tempering our enthusiasm because it’s so early – after this cold snap, maturity is delayed and stretching out but we’re finding a fair amount of live peaches, right now it’s a flower or a needle size fruit, the size of a number 2 pencil lead,” Lane said. “To say with any certainty that we have X percent of a crop just isn’t realistic. Our stand is we have a commercial crop of peaches. What’s going to be important is the temperatures moving into the next two weeks, what’s viable will start growing fairly quickly and what’s not will wither and fall off the tree. We’re in a holding pattern: Considering how cold it got we’re very fortunate to be in the situation we’re in, but we’re not out of the woods yet either.”

Said Hall, “It’s too early to tell exactly how prices will be affected – you don’t know what may be coming in from other regions at the time, whether we’ll have other weather problems, but it’s a likely scenario: Because we are short on product the prices could be higher for sure. To add insult to injury everything looked like a banner crop, they all looked really good as far as product and size and quantity and all that. But these growers, they’re optimists, they’re thinking about what we do next year. You can’t be farmer and not be an optimist.”

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