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A late March freeze devastated the Southeastern peach and blueberry industries, but by all accounts the Southern vegetable crop shrugged off the cold and has come back in full force.

At vegetable grower Southern Valley, which farms 1200-1500 acres in Norman Park, GA, squash plants in mid-April showed little evidence of the bitter cold. And while the zucchini crop was wiped out, replantings have flourished in the early season heat and will come to market in the typical May-June window with little delay.

Said Katie Murray, who handles public relations for Southern Valley, “We didn’t experience a whole lot of damage from the freeze, we were pretty blessed among farmers in this area. A lot of others had a lot worse damage but we came out of it really with very minimal damage to our crop. Replanting the zucchini put us back about 10 days.”

Workers staking out fields at Southern Valley’s Norman Park, GA farms for the company’s signature pole-grown cucumber crop. (Photo by Chip Carter)

 

At greens grower Baker Farms, also in Norman Park, the outermost edges of otherwise perfect collards showed minimal damage from the frost; the rest of the plant seemed to have flourished to spite the cold blast.

Greens grow virtually year-round in Georgia, but “This has been the most unusual year on weather that I can ever remember,” said Joe Baker, who runs the company with brother Richard. “The fall was picture perfect, it was like growing greens in California, no humidity, cool at night, warm during the day. We kept saying in December and January, ‘The bottom’s going to drop out’ and it never did. Even when it did freeze it warmed right back up in the middle of the day. Collards and kale it didnt affect at all, some of the mustard and turnips got bit a little bit but we were able to go in there and clean them up and move forward. It was just a little bit of an inconvenience.”

An exceptionally warm winter had Georgia crops running ahead of their normal window. The freeze pretty much evened things out.

“I would say we’re probably caught up, right at where it would have been,” Murray said. “It stayed warm for so long – it really never got cold this winter – we were hoping to get ahead. But I think we’re right at where we tend to be.”

Workers pack green beans at Southern Valley. (Photo by Chip Carter)

Georgia dodged another bullet two weeks after the freeze when 48 hours of torrential rains, hail and tornadoes threatened crops across the state. At L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms in Lyons, GA, some plants in a field of greens sported perfect holes in the occasional leaf, looking like a bullet had shot straight through, courtesy of a hailstorm that took out 40 acres of Vidalia onions but left the rest of crops intact and in good shape.

“The cold shocked the greens a little bit, but they’ve come back out of it and are growing and doing good,” Herndon said in mid-April. “Overall we’ve had a good growing season.”

Herndon is also one of the state’s larger growers of sweet corn, with some 900 acres in production.

“We usually start around Memorial Day with corn, sometimes we miss that and wind up around June 1, but somewhere around there we start pulling corn and we’ll go through about the 20th of July,” Herndon said.

Mid-May is when most of the Georgia Southern veg crop starts coming on, as the market transitions from Florida fields that are now too hot to produce premium product after having most of the spring domestic deal to themselves.

Lima beans, pole beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, okra, potatoes, squash, zucchini, field peas and tomatoes all start to come on in mid-May, ramping up to peak production by the start of June. Carrots and cabbage are winding down peak production, greens are heading toward their annual summer break, and most of the Vidalia onion crop will be out of the fields as well. Eggplant, sweet peppers and watermelons are getting their last growth spurts before harvest begins in early June.

Pole-grown cucumbers in the Southern Valley packinghouse. (Photo by Chip Carter)

Markets have been depressed due to great growing weather in Florida and Mexico, which led to bumper crops, product gluts and rock-bottom prices. But as Mexico and Florida retreat from the deal, prices should stabilize and promise better returns to growers, especially since the freeze did take a bite out of some of the earliest producing Southern veg crops.

“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,” Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association told SPW shortly after the freeze. “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.”

Ideally, slightly tighter early supplies will solidify the market for the coming crop, which will likely be bountiful due to continued remarkable growing weather.

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