COLUMBIA, S.C. — The freezing temperatures and early spring blizzards that swept across the Southeast have devastated the region's tree fruit crops, as well as other fruits and vegetables including watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, corn, wheat and tobacco, sources told SN.
Hardest hit were peaches. South Carolina growers, for example, have said they may be fortunate to save 10% of their state's $40 million-plus peach crop. Growers there suffered heavy apple and blueberry losses as well.
“They won't have any dollar estimates for another week or so, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture farm agency is doing the detailed damage assessment reports,” said Becky Walton, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
South Carolina's peach industry employs approximately 2,000 people, Julie Huffman, executive director of the South Carolina Peach Council, told SN, and it is the second-largest peach-producing state behind California. “In 2006, we shipped 2,200 loads of peaches,” she said.
“This year, before the freeze, we were looking forward to the best year ever, with the most quantity we've ever had and new varieties to offer retailers.”
If 10% of the peach crop survives, that would be equivalent to about 200 loads, Huffman told SN.
Georgia lost all of its peach crops in the northern part of the state, with middle to southern Georgia possibly having 50% or less of its crop intact.
“We had about three days in a row where we had temps running anywhere from about 21 to 23 degrees, and we lost all of our peach crop in the northern part of the state,” Tommy Irvin, Georgia state agriculture commissioner, told SN. “We lost a good portion, over 50%, of our apple crop, 90% of our blueberry crops statewide, lots of our strawberries. We lost a lot of our pecans, and a lot of our fresh fruits and vegetables that were just emerging from the soil.
“We even lost part of our corn — we were about 70% planted, and some of it's been nipped back pretty heavily.”
Irvin said he believes many of the vegetable crops will be replanted, and it seems as though the state's onions went relatively unscathed.
“They seem to be in pretty good shape — onions can stand a lot of cold weather,” he said.
“Everything that could be affected by extremely cold weather has been nipped in Georgia.”
Irvin has said that there is no disaster relief planned yet for Georgia.
In South Carolina, the last major spring freeze was in 1996; however, since then, the cost of producing peaches has tripled, Huffman said. Before the '96 freeze, there was one in 1993.
“With farming, this is something that you don't like to happen, but you're not especially surprised to see it every decade or so,” she said.
“Fortunately, the trees weren't damaged at all, it was just the crop, so in 2008, we'll be right back out there with South Carolina peaches that retailers and consumers have come to expect.”
Retailers have not yet experienced any changes due to the crops being damaged by the cold weather, as peaches have not been harvested yet and the states themselves are still in the process of assessing the extent of the damage.
“It's really too early for us to tell right now,” said Rita Postell, spokeswoman for Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co., Charleston, S.C.
“There are a lot of projections and predictions and all of that, but it really hasn't affected us yet, because we get produce from a number of areas, so it may or may not affect us at all, but we haven't got to that point to see any change yet.”
Postell says that all they can do right now is wait and see about prices and shortages in supplies.
“The produce directors are telling me that it's like Russian roulette right now — you just really can't predict until you see there's a significant increase in price or reduction in supply of an item that you need, so sometimes that information is really scary. But until it affects you, you really don't want to scare your consumers.”
Prices will probably be high for the peaches available from South Carolina, according to Huffman.
“They will probably be marketed as a premium product, because in that 10% we'll be fortunate to get, we're not counting poor-quality peaches, we're counting ones that will be of the same quality that we've prided ourselves on,” she said.
The June Prince and July Prince varieties appear to have made it through the freeze all right, but it won't be known for sure for another two weeks or so, Huffman added.
For Georgia, Commissioner Irvin told SN he thinks the only positive aspect is that the state's big crops, such as peanuts and cotton, have not been planted yet.
Quincy, Mass.-based Stop & Shop hasn't seen any changes at the retail level yet either, but it plans to communicate with its customers, should prices start to go up for fruit and vegetables affected by the freeze.
“I know with the recent freeze in California, and then when the hurricane affected produce, we tried to help our customers by putting in my consumer column and placing in-store signage about which produce items were affected, which alternative produce items are available and certainly when and if it affects pricing. We are very up-front and explain to our customers why pricing is affected,” Andrea Astrachan, consumer affairs advisor for Stop & Shop, told SN.
“That is something that we frequently do, and the produce department and consumer affairs collaborate to provide good customer information on that.”
Other states affected include Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee, among others. In Blount County, Ala., 100% of peaches, pecans and plum crops were lost, and in Kentucky, preliminary estimates of the state's peach and apple losses are at 90%, according to the Associated Press.
Irvin said he believes peaches will be hurt all over the Peach Belt. “There just won't be the volume available that you normally have,” he said.
In South Carolina, Huffman and Walton are hopeful for next year. “We hope that retailers will buy from South Carolina when they can,” Walton said. “And we do expect to have a veggie crop.”