Published on 10/07/04

Jeanne landed final blow for Georgia's vegetable crops

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

After repeated hits by tropical storms this fall, Hurricane Jeanne hit Georgia on Sept. 27 and gave what amounted to a final blow to the state's vegetable crop, says a University of Georgia expert.

"Jeanne caught us while we were already down and kind of topped it all off," said Terry Kelley, a horticulturist with the UGA Extension Service.

The pepper, tomato, squash and cucumber crops were the hardest hit, he said. Along with eggplant, sweet corn and snap beans, Georgia farmers have about 45,000 acres of vegetables planted in fields now. About one-third of the pepper, tomato, squash and cucumber crops were harvested before Jeanne arrived, Kelley said.

But after Jeanne blew through, 75 percent to 90 percent of the remaining pepper and tomato crops were lost in the fields, he said. About half of the remaining squash and cucumber crops were lost.

Most of the damage came from strong winds that knocked plants and fruits to the ground, Kelley said. Wet weather between the storm systems, too, prevented many farmers from applying much- needed pesticides and fungicides to protect their crops from insects and diseases.

Because of Georgia's mild climate, farmers here can plant two vegetable crops a year.

This fall's tropical punches would have hurt less had Georgia farmers harvested successful spring crops to cushion the blows. But they didn't. The crops were good. But prices were bad, he said.

In the southeastern United States, vegetable harvest usually starts in south Florida around February or March. As the weather warms and crops mature, the harvest moves north through Florida into Georgia and then the Carolinas.

But a mix of cool, dry and then wet spring weather caused vegetables across the Southeast to be harvested near the same time. This flooded markets and dropped prices.

"The vegetable market depends on many factors. You hope at least one of the two seasons treats you decent," Kelley said. "It's rare for both to be so bad."

Georgia's average first day of frost is about six weeks away. It's too late to start any new vegetable crops, he said. But farmers can try to get what's left in the fields to markets. Prices are good now, because supplies are low across the Southeast.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.