An early spring freeze cost Georgia’s blueberry farmers as much as 60 percent of their crop this season, according to Renee Allen, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agent for commercial blueberry production.
Growers suffered a loss in 2017, too, but were optimistic after plants received the proper number of chill hours for production during this year’s colder winter. Unfortunately, in late February, temperatures soared, which caused the plants to bloom early and succumb to freezing temperatures in the first two weeks of March.
“When the temperatures started to go up in February, we got concerned because the plants started breaking dormancy … very consistently and all coming out at once, both the highbush and rabbiteye varieties,” Allen said. “It was earlier than we would have liked, because at that point, we’re not out of the woods in regard to the number of potential freezes that can occur.”
Allen’s fears were justified. According to the UGA Weather Network (www.georgiaweather.net), temperatures rose to 85 degrees Fahrenheit on Feb. 21 in Bacon County, Georgia, a top blueberry-producing county. Then temperatures dropped as low as 29 F on March 15.
There was sporadic loss across the blueberry farms in the southeastern part of the state, she said. Losses were determined by the temperature lows, the cold air and where it settled.
“I think people were optimistic about having more of their rabbiteye crop, but ultimately, when we had those warm, 80-degree temperatures in February, the plants started to bloom,” Allen said. “When those blooms are out like that, they’re just so susceptible to any freezing temperatures.”
When they anticipate a freeze, Georgia farmers use frost protection, including overhead irrigation. After a freeze, applying plant growth regulators to protect the fruit is the only option.
Just four years ago, in 2014, Georgia produced 95 million pounds of blueberries, according to Allen. This propelled Georgia to be No. 1 in blueberry production in the country. Because of last year’s late-season freeze and warm temperatures in the winter, Georgia’s production declined to 28 million pounds.
“The mood’s not very good. I think the growers’ spirits are down. We’ve been hit hard two years in a row,” Allen said.
To learn more about Georgia’s blueberry crop, visit https://t.uga.edu/4ha.