Two weeks after a late freeze blasted the Southeast causing major damage to a variety of crops, a clearer picture of the overall damage is emerging.
Blueberries appear to be hardest hit. In Georgia, the nation’s leading producer of blueberries, “we lost about 70% of the crop,” according to Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association. “The [early season] rabbit eye had a 80-90% loss, [late-season] high bush had a 40 – 60% loss. When combined we are looking at 65-70% loss to the state. We will have blueberries –we’re harvesting them now – but just not as many.”
The Georgia Blueberry Commission had predicted a 110 million pound harvest; post-freeze projections drop that to 30 million-40 million.
South Carolina lost between 80-85 percent of its blueberry crop and the situation was not much better in North Carolina, which is reporting an 80 percent crop loss.
The NC Blueberry Crop looks to be “quite a bit better than previously thought. Industry wide it looks to be about a 40% to 60% loss,” said Dexter Hill with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. As with peaches it depends, on the variety and the grower. There will be NC Blueberries available this year and the quality of those berries will be very good.”
Alabama blueberries made it through in better shape though there is not enough acreage under production to provide much of an offset. Florida will provide more help, with a potential harvest of more than 20 million pounds despite surviving its own late-season freeze scare. Florida farmers should be able to stay in the fields longer this year and bring virtually their entire crop to market. Typically, once production from other states comes on, market prices drop and Florida farmers stop harvesting as profits shrink.
Peaches may have fared better than initially thought in some areas, but crop losses are still substantial. South Carolina leads the South in peach production and appears to have suffered the most substantial losses.
“The severe weather event in March caused significant damage to the peach crop,” said Matthew Cornwell from the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. “Each grower’s operation may be slightly different but we expect an 80–85% loss. We think we may have some fruit in July-August but we’re just not sure on quantity and quality at this point.”
South Carolina’s peach crop has an annual value of about $90 million, with an overall economic impact upstream and downstream of about $300 million. The industry provides 1500 jobs.
In Georgia, “early varieties got pretty well wiped out,” Hall said. “We are still trying to get a projection on the later varieties.”
In North Carolina, peaches “were further along probably by two or three weeks, then they got hit by extreme cold not just one night but three nights,” said Hill. “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.”
Alabama’s $6 million peach crop came through in better shape, according to the state extension service. Gary Gray, a commercial horticulture agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, said there is still potential for a good peach crop, though growers won’t know the full extent of damage until the crop further develops.
Once again, Florida farmers will benefit from the freeze. The burgeoning Florida peach industry has just 1400 acres in production, but growers produce a tree-ripened peach that is immediately available for market. The typical six-week season usually wraps up in in late April or early May, but Sonia Tighe with the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association said “the growers I’ve talked to think they can extend into May longer than they ordinarily do.”
Strawberry crops fared much better around the Southeast, with most states reporting about a 15 percent crop loss. Early season vegetable varieties took a hit between 15-30 percent of overall annual harvest state-by-state.