Published on 03/18/96

March Freeze Hits Georgia Crops Hard

A month after a bitter early-February freeze, Georgia farmers have taken it on the chin again. Another deep freeze and damaging winds blasted the state's vegetable, fruit and grain crops March 8-9.

"Every county, every field and every stage of Vidalia onions have been hurt," said Rick Hartley, Toombs County director of the University of Georgia Extension Service. "The total impact to Georgia's economy could exceed $100 million in losses."

Hartley said freeze itself may not have badly damaged Vidalia onions.

"The onions are alive but suffered extreme damage to their leaves," he said. "The wind and sand caused more physical damage than the cold, but the cold damage won't be visible for several weeks."

Even onions that stay healthy may be lost in the end, Hartley said.

"March temperatures of 20 degrees and a chill factor of zero degrees generally trigger the reproductive mechanism in Vidalia onions," he said. "This causes them to flower," he said. "And onions which flower aren't considered harvestable."

Vidalia onion farmers "could lose as much as $50 million," Hartley said, if the seed stems show up as growers fear. "They've already lost half of a 14,000-acre crop."

Terry Kelley, an Extension vegetable specialist in Tifton, agreed that the seed-stem threat is Vidalia onion growers' main concern from the latest freeze.

"But I'm still concerned that it may have hurt us worse than we think," he said. "I don't think we've seen all the damage yet from the February freeze."

The freeze hit other vegetables hard, too.

"Much of the mustard and turnip greens were replanted after the last freeze," Kelley said. "As young and tender as these plants were, we could see some problems."

Collards, cabbage and kale crops were also damaged, he said, but not as much as the mustard and turnips. Like onions, collards and cabbage may have problems with flowering later.

"We're going to have a later crop of just about every winter vegetable," he said. "We just haven't had the temperatures for development."

The state's peaches will be hard-pressed to appear as more than a shadow of a normal crop.

"What percent of a crop we'll have, we don't know," said M.E. "Butch" Ferree, an Extension peach specialist in Fort Valley. "Some varieties are totally wiped out, and we can find buds on others."

Assessing the peach crop damage is tough, he said.

"It's not easy to see. We have to look at a tiny flower," he said. "And it's a miracle that we've got something to look at, with the weather we've had.

"It will be a few days before we can know the damage any better," he said. "And then we've got four more weeks of weather that could hurt us. We don't feel like we're out of the woods until Easter."

Brooks County Extension Director Johnny Whiddon, whose farmers are among the state's top peach growers, said losses would likely be heavy.

"We really won't know until the blooms that were killed fall off and we can get a better look at it," Whiddon said. "But the best projection we can make right now puts (Brooks County) losses at 75 percent to 80 percent."

Dewey Lee, an Extension grains specialist in Tifton, said the state's wheat crop appears to have been damaged.

"We won't know for several more days exactly how much of the crop was hurt," he said.

Wheat plants with grain heads eight to 10 inches above the soil were most affected. "It's most likely the grain heads froze," he said. Once they freeze, they die.

But wheat is able to make up for lost grain heads. "Just because we lose, for example, 80 percent of the grain heads from freezing," he said, "doesn't

mean we'll lose the same percentage of our yield."

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.