After one of the warmest winters in recent memory, plants sprang to life well before they should have blossomed. Even on Feb. 1, as Phil the groundhog was declaring six more weeks of winter, spring had already arrived — as much as 20 days earlier than normal in the Southeast.
Then last week, the jet stream took a dive and allowed freezing temperatures to reach the Deep South. It was a massacre for fruit crops.
Of the fruits (and farmers) that were affected, peaches and blueberries were the hardest hit, the Associated Press reported Monday night. Agriculture officials estimate the loss could be a whopping $1 billion, and South Carolina and Georgia are bearing the brunt of that burden.
Georgia may be the “peach state,” but South Carolina is the second-largest peach grower behind California. The state’s agriculture department estimates an 85 percent loss in peaches this year. Blueberries in Georgia were cut 80 percent by the freeze.
“We saw blueberry fields that had the potential to be the biggest and best crop of Georgia’s production history that you would now not be able to find enough blueberries that survived the cold to make one pie,” Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black told the AP.
Strawberries and apples were damaged, too, though not to the extent of the blueberries and peaches, which appear to be a disaster from reports.
David Streit, a forecaster for Commodity Weather Group and the Capital Weather Gang, said the damage will “for sure” mean higher prices for peaches this summer.
The destruction occurred Thursday night, when temperatures bottomed out in the 20s, breaking records:
- Savannah, Ga., tied its record low of 26 degrees
- Jacksonville set a record low, plunging to 28
- Florence, S.C., dropped to 20 degrees, shattering its previous record of 25
- Charleston dipped to a record low 24 degrees, four degrees below its previous record
- Gainesville, Fla. fell to 25, obliterating the previous record of 32
The timing of the freeze wasn’t the strange part, though, it was what came before it and how cold it got.
“For this year’s [freeze], the most unusual aspect was the exceptionally warm winter across the Southeast, which caused the fruit trees to bud and bloom at least a month before they normally do,” said Jordan McLeod, a climatologist at the Southeast Regional Climate Center. “The hard freeze last week was actually not ‘late’ for an early spring freeze based on the climatology.”
In other words, it’s normal to get freezing temperatures in the Southeast in mid-March, so maybe we should blame the loss on the warm winter, instead.
On the flip side, Southeast crops have been struggling because they haven’t had enough cold weather, too. Blueberries and peaches need days during which the temperature is cool but not freezing. It keeps the plants dormant, which is important not only to prevent them from blooming before the last freeze, but also to increase the quality of the fruit.
Not enough cool days means small, flavorless blueberries. This is the second year in a row that Southeast farmers are struggling because of the lack of cool air. In 2015, a hard freeze knocked out crops in Georgia so for some, 2017 is the third year in a row of extremely low yield.
Officials told the Associated Press last week’s freeze was the worst for crops since the Easter freeze in 2007, which also cost the industry $1 billion.