Published on 04/12/07

Wintry spring weather waylays Georgia crops

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

The freezing temperatures that settled over most of Georgia on Easter weekend severely damaged the peach and blueberry crops and hurt many more. University of Georgia agricultural specialists say they may not know its effects completely until later in the year.

About 90 percent of Georgia's 15,000 acres of peaches grow in middle Georgia, where temperatures dipped into the mid to upper 20s. This was enough to hurt the pea- to nickle-sized fruit, said Kathy Taylor, a UGA Cooperative Extension peach specialist. Of the crop there, 45 percent remains in good condition. In south Georgia, 60 percent of the crop is in good shape.

"The peach crop was going to be fabulous up until this weekend," Taylor said.

Like the peach farmers, blueberry farmers were expecting a great year, said Gerard Krewer, UGA Extension blueberry specialist. But not anymore.

Georgia farmers grow the Southern highbush and rabbiteye blueberry varieties, he said. Farmers will start picking the Southern highbush later this month and in May. This early crop will be good.

But the variety accounts for only 15 percent of the estimated 8,000 blueberry acres. The rest is the later-maturing rabbiteye variety, which was severely damaged by the freeze.

"This is the worst freeze I have seen on blueberries," Krewer said.

Georgia's corn crop will have some minor damage but will be fine, said Dewey Lee, UGA Extension corn specialist. Farmers wanted to cash in on high demand and prices for the crop and planted 100 percent more this year than last.

The wheat crop didn't fair as well, Lee said. Most of the wheat was in a vulnerable stage of development. It will take time to know the extent of the damage, but anywhere temperatures dropped below 30 degrees, the damage could be severe.

Farmers planted 400,000 acres of wheat this year. It will be ready for harvest in late May.

Pecan trees leaf out in mid spring and aren't normally damaged by freezing temperatures. But orchards in east Georgia were severely damaged, said Lenny Wells, UGA Extension pecan specialist.

Anywhere temperatures reached 28 degrees or below, there was likely damage. Temperatures in southwest Georgia, the hub of production, dipped slightly below freezing in a few places.

It’s too early, he said, to know how this freeze will affect harvest in fall.

Farmers have planted more than half the expected 30,000 acres of watermelons. Early assessments indicate the crop may have dodged a bullet and will be OK, said George Boyhan, UGA Extension vegetable specialist.

"But I think there may still be a price to pay on the watermelons with delayed harvest and perhaps reduced yield," Boyhan said. "We'll have to wait and see."

The freeze didn't hurt vegetable crops like broccoli and leafy greens. "They're used to that kind of temperatures," said Terry Kelley, UGA Extension vegetable specialist.

But farmers had already planted most of the warm-season vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and snap beans. These crops don't do well in cold weather. There are isolated fields with damage, he said, but overall, the warm-season vegetables will be OK.

"The stuff that was transplanted last week probably took a licking, but the stuff that had been in the ground for awhile probably fared OK," Kelley said.

Farmers have already started harvesting the first of Georgia's sweet Vidalia onion crop, said Reid Torrence, UGA Extension coordinator in Tattnall County, where half of the crop is grown.

Most dug onions were collected before the freeze. Farmers postponed digging, leaving the rest in the ground for protection. "I'd be surprised if we end up with any damage to the onion crop," Torrence said.

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