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Freezing temperatures in southern US strike devastating blow to fruit crops

Farmers across the Southeast are working to maintain their fruit harvests after a prolonged freeze left behind major crop damage.

A blast of arctic air pushed into the Southeast during the week of March 13 and challenged record lows across the region. On March 15, the National Weather Service in Columbia, South Carolina, warned of a “potential agricultural disaster” as freeze warnings stretched into central Florida.

In the wake of the freeze, peach farmers in South Carolina, the largest peach-producing state on the East Coast, are dealing with their worst crop damage in a decade.

The farmers are hopeful to have 10 to 15 percent of their normal crop this year, according to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. South Carolina residents looking for peaches will still be able to buy them in July and August, but in limited supply, the agency said.

South Carolina is second to only California in overall peach production in the United States. The state’s peach crop has an annual value of $90 million and an economic impact of more than $300 million.

“Peaches are a signature South Carolina crop, and this weather anomaly has devastated peach farmers,” said Hugh Weathers, South Carolina commissioner of agriculture. “However, as South Carolina farmers have shown time and again, they are resilient and with the help of allied-industry partners, they will survive this devastating blow.”

The state also reported a 15 percent loss to the strawberry crop and a “significant loss” to blueberries. The full impact of the damage from the freeze will not be known for at least three weeks.

blueberries

In this photo made available by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, frozen blueberries are viewed at the J&B Blueberry Farm in Manor, Ga., Friday, March 17, 2017. (Georgia Department of Agriculture via AP)


Unusually mild winter conditions in the East caused the peaches to begin blooming approximately three weeks earlier than normal. Farmers typically spend the winter months pruning the trees so they can bear fruit, with the first harvest usually taking place in late May or early June.

In neighboring Georgia, officials told the Associated Press that 80 percent of south Georgia’s blueberry crop is gone. Additionally, the total losses between Georgia and South Carolina could amount to $1 billion.

Jake Carter, 36, co-owner of Southern Belle Farm in McDonough, Georgia, said they were able to save most of their strawberries, the primary crop on the farm, but their peaches and blueberries did suffer significant damage.

“This is the worst [freeze] I’ve seen, when we’re this far along [in the season],” Carter told AccuWeather. “Granted this is early for us, usually we’re not this far along this early."

Southern Belle typically plants its strawberries in October and harvests them in mid-April, but this year the public has already been picking strawberries on the farm. Peaches and blueberries are usually harvested around Memorial Day.

“I think we’re going to be OK on our peaches,” Carter said, adding that enough of the blooms on their beach trees survived.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture cautioned growers on March 11 that a lot of work would be needed to save their crops as temperatures were forecast to dip into the mid-20s.

While growers made sure to cover strawberry patches with heavy cloth, some still reported heavy losses.

cedar grove blueberry

Temperatures in the teens severely impacted blueberry flowers at Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm in Cedar Grove, North Carolina. (Photo/Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm)


Batey Farms in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, estimated it lost 90 percent of its blossoming strawberries. However, on their Facebook page, they announced they would “hit the reset button” and work to have strawberries available for picking by early May.

Cathy Bradley, owner of Bradley Kountry Acres in Cottontown, Tennessee, said they double covered their acreage of strawberries in anticipation of the sub-freezing temperatures. The covers remained in place with more cold on the way this week.

"At this time, we really don't know the outcome, but are hoping the doubled covers prevented too much damage," Bradley said.

Three consecutive nights of sub-freezing temperatures, including two where temperatures reached the teens, resulted in at least a 50 percent crop loss for Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, according to co-owner Kether Smith.

It’s the second straight year a deep freeze has claimed a significant portion of their blueberries. Last April, the farm, which has about three acres of blueberry bushes, lost 75 percent of its crop.

Smith, 39, estimated that they were about two weeks ahead of schedule. As she surveyed her fields, many of the blueberry flowers that had not fully developed had turned brown and appeared “cooked,” she said.

“What normally would have been really tight buds had opened up into flowers and the farther along they are in development, the more susceptible they are to frost,” she said.