Farmers Struggle to Save Crops in Southern Cold Spell

The cold spell blanketing the Deep South was good news for some fruit growers, though the latest round of extreme weather has created worries for other farmers after the drought and drenching rains of 2009.

"Right now, we're letting nature take care of itself," said Joe Mitcham Jr., whose 100 acres of peaches are the largest orchard in Louisiana. His peaches need 850 to 1,000 hours of temperatures below 45 degrees, and he expected to be well into 700 hours by next week.

The effects of the latest weather swing may be more ominous for growers of citrus, strawberries and other specialties — depending on how long the cold snap lasts and, particularly for fish farmers, how abruptly it warms back up. Alabama catfish producers, for example, could see greater than normal winter kill. Crawfish farmers also can't harvest the burrowed-down critters until the waters warm up.

It's been almost 14 years since the area has had such a long and biting cold snap, said National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Ricks. He expected temperatures to trend back toward more normal, above-freezing temperatures next week.

Because most non-citrus fruits require an extended season of chilling to produce a good crop, they're not big in warmer parts of the Deep South: fewer than 400 acres of peaches in Louisiana, and 1,000 acres of peaches and 250 acres of apples in Mississippi.

Even for peaches, it may be too cold for the best results, said Gary D. Gray, a regional extension agent based in Chilton County, Ala., where about 2,500 acres — 80 percent of the state's crop — are grown. He said the best chilling occurs between 32 degrees and 50 degrees.

In Georgia, temperatures dipping into the 20s and 30s were helping the state's 10,000 acres of peaches rack up the chilling hours needed to mature, said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

Apples need about the same amount of cold or a bit more, said Mike Reeves, regional agent for northeast Alabama. The state has about 250 acres of apples, a state extension service spokeswoman said.

The unusual cold also could kill off insects that might otherwise wreak havoc on blueberries or already hard-hit row crops later this season.

"It has been a wacky year," Mississippi State University agricultural economist John Michael Riley said. There was a slow start for some crops in 2009, with rains delaying spring planting. Then came a dramatic dryout, and high hopes for decent yields for crops like soybeans, cotton and sweet potatoes virtually washed away for many producers by near-constant rains at the peak of the traditional harvest.

"The probability of something like this happening was always there," Riley said. "It just happened to go down this year."

Economists have estimated revenue losses for major row crops in Louisiana and Mississippi at more than $800 million, and Riley believes a federal emergency aid package will be needed to help some producers stay in business in 2010.

In many cases, 2009's losses compounded those felt in 2008. That year was hit by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, high fuel and production costs, and wildly fluctuating prices on the commodities market. Congress has yet to act on a bailout.

At least half of Louisiana's citrus crop is already picked, but farmers will have problems if temperatures drop to 22 degrees or below, said Alan Vaughn of the Louisiana State University AgCenter.

Growers with at least 4,000 trees will be able to get the labor to pick the rest and the coolers to hold the fruit for months, he said — but smaller growers, with a few hundred trees, don't have the labor or storage capacity. The fruit, uncooled, is good for about 10 days, Vaughn said.

"The small guy, if it gets too cold, he's just lost the rest of his crop," he said.

The cold comes at a bit of a lull in the production year. While there are some major crops at risk — Florida farmers have been scrambling to protect their citrus — much of the concern across the Southeast now settles on niche crops.

Farmer Eddie Faust was nervous about what he'd find when he peeled the insulated blanket off his strawberries once it warmed up again in southeast Louisiana. He figured some of the green berries he'd hoped to have picked and ready for sale for Valentine's Day would have freeze burn. He just hoped there wouldn't be many.

"It's going to be a wait and see thing," he said days into a deep freeze that had sent lows into the 20s, about 15-20 degrees below normal for parts of the region.

"This is the first in many years it's dropped like this."