March 12-13 freeze causes some damage, delays fruit crops
By Jay Stone, Georgia Farm Bureau
The freezing temperatures that swept across Georgia on March 12 and 13 resulted in some damage to the state’s fruit crops, the worst of which appears to be in blueberries grown in the southernmost portion of the state. The consensus feeling among the growers GFB media talked to was thankfulness.
“It was bad, but it certainly could have been worse,” said Tim McMillan, who runs Southern Grace Farms in Berrien County and chairs Georgia Farm Bureau’s Fruit Committee.
Strawberry and peach growers sustained losses in early-blooming fruit plants. Growers still anticipate strong crops, though the prospect of another freeze event is a cause for concern.
In the mid-March event, temperatures plunged to the mid-20s in South Georgia and the teens in the North Georgia mountains, posing a variety of challenges for producers of most of the state’s major fruit crops.
Georgia Blueberry Commission Chairman Jerome Crosby said growers are still reviewing potential crop damage – he had crop scouts scheduled to survey his fields later this week – but expects early-blooming highbush blueberries were the hardest hit.
“If you had high bush without frost protection, it’s gone,” Crosby said. “The fruit was so mature and the cold so severe, it was an immediate death to that crop.”
Crosby said about 40% of Georgia highbush blueberries do not have frost protection. Even with frost protection - irrigation that combines with the freezing temperatures to form an ice capsule around the berries – growers could still have damage to 15% to 20% of their berries.
Rabbiteye blueberries, which bloom later, generally escaped serious damage, Crosby said.
The diminished crop generated other concerns. Retailers waiting on the arrival of early season blueberries can resort to buying imported berries. Crosby worried that domestic producers might not regain that shelf space next year.
Blueberry packing facilities, many of which had already purchased materials and arranged for labor, will likely suffer financial harm with no early fruit on their processing lines.
“Most of the farmers have crop insurance, but they don’t want to farm crop insurance. Big losers are packing facilities. There will be no revenue without fruit going down the processing line. That’s tough,” Crosby said.
A sampling of fruit growers from around the state:
Some early blooms on peach trees were lost.
The main concerns arising from this event for Dickey’s Peaches in Crawford County and Jaemor Farms in Hall County are limited availability of fruit early in the season and the potential for more freezing weather in the coming weeks.
“It’s really around a few particular varieties,” Lee Dickey said. “It affected mostly some early peaches. The good thing is we’ve got fruit pretty much everywhere, so it’s not a total wipeout of any one variety or anything like that.”
Jaemor owner Drew Echols said that the trees’ tendency to overproduce blooms in stages could mitigate the loss from this event. He said about 30% of the blooms on Jaemor’s trees had bloomed, and those blooms were wiped out by the March 12-13 freeze.
“We lost those first ones but we had plenty of blooms that had not opened yet,” Echols said. “We’re still looking at a phenomenal crop, one of the better crops of fruit that I’ve seen set in a long time. I feel good about it right now, but it’s still early. It’s shaping up to be a good year. It was a scary weekend. It probably took a couple of years off of my life sitting around worrying about it all weekend.”
Dickey and Echols both said other growers he’d talked to were optimistic about the crop, as well.
The fact that strawberry plants continuously bear fruit means losses from the March 12-13 freeze could be minimized.
Like most commercial growers, Southern Belle Farm in Henry County put out ground covers to shield its strawberry plants from the cold and limit crop loss.
In a video on social media, Southern Belle owner Jake Carter marveled at the heartiness of the plants.
“I tell you these strawberry plants are resilient,” Carter said. “We did lose some blooms. It got down to 22 degrees. We had this white fabric cloth that we call row covers over the top of the plants. It’s just a really little cloth material to give us a little separation or else we would have lost all the blooms.”
Carter’s video can be viewed here.
“We’re very blessed that we didn’t receive more damage than we did. So we’re very thankful for that,” he said. “We’re very optimistic about this year’s crop.”
Strawberries pose a big concern for Echols, who said he lost approximately 5,000 gallons of berries on his 22-acre plot, the equivalent of about 10% of his total crop. That’s an estimated value of $80,000. Since strawberries continuously produce fruit through their growing season, Echols is optimistic that the fruit will be plentiful, but the loss is compounded by delayed customer traffic in Jaemor’s stores.
“It killed the blooms and any green fruit that I had out there,” Echols said. “We were shaping up to be a little bit early; right on time to a little bit early. What that actually does for me is it’s not just that $80,000, for an operation like mine with all the retail, it’s getting so many customers in the door earlier. I mean yeah it was $80,000 worth of strawberries but it was probably another at least $80,000 worth of product that these folks would have been buying out of the market and things like that. It hurts your feelings, but again, it could be a lot worse.”
At Southern Grace Farms in Berrien County, owner Tim McMillan used row covers and said his strawberries came through fine.
In Gilmer County, Andy Futch of R&A Orchards said his apple trees had little, if any damage.
“We just haven’t progressed far enough along to get much damage out of it,” Futch said. “Apples haven’t come out yet. Usually April is the month that gives us trouble.”
McMillan, who produces commercial crops of blackberries, said the plants were early enough in their yearly growth cycle that they were not affected. His satsuma crop, which he also produced commercially, sustained some leaf damage, but he didn’t expect adverse effects on the fruit.