The Easter weekend freeze devastated crops throughout the Southeast, but perhaps hardest hit was the peach industry.
In South Carolina, the nation's second largest peach producing state, expectations are bleak. “Last year (2006) we shipped 2,500 truck loads, or about 100 million pounds of peaches and this year we are hoping to ship 200 truckloads — maybe 10 million pounds,” says Julie Huffman, director of the South Carolina Peach Council.
Monetta, S.C., growers Mike, Al and Tristan DuBose, who operate Cotton Hope Peach Farm, saw their peach crop destroyed by the cold weather. Mike DuBose notes that the expectations of 200 truckloads being shipped in South Carolina are probably too optimistic.
From the road, acre after acre, row after row of peach trees at Cotton Hope Farms stand pristine, perfectly pruned to let maximum sunlight into the tree canopy. The peach trees look fine from a distance. Up close is another story. The peach trees that should be loaded with peaches, waiting to be pruned, are mostly bare of fruit.
“That Sunday morning after the freeze, I walked through the orchards and many of the tiny peaches, from the size of a pencil eraser to nearly golf ball size were black,” DuBose says. Some of the peaches that morning were just frozen solid — I couldn't even cut through them with a knife, he adds.”
Though he has early, mid and late-maturing varieties, all were equally devastated by the record cold weather. Some varieties in some locations sheltered some from the cold may produce a few peaches. Contender is one variety that is more tolerant to cold weather, but DuBose says his block of Contenders appears to be as damaged as his other peaches.
At the South Carolina Peach Council, Huffman says there is still some hope that July Prince and some of the newer varieties will produce some peaches, but more than 90 percent of the crop will be lost, she contends.
The peaches left on the trees at Cotton Hope are literally scarred for life by the freeze. Cutting the tiny peaches in half, the tell-tale brown spot, some just a speck and some covering most of the inside of the peach, are evident on every peach sampled in the orchard. “I haven't found many not damaged by the freeze,” he says.
The freezing temperatures can completely freeze the peach and everything dies. In a lesser state it kills the seed inside the peach, and the fruit appears normal on the outside, but when you cut into the peach, the seed is damaged. DuBose says the freeze damaged fruit will never recover to make marketable peaches.
The temperature on Easter morning was 25-29 degrees for a long period of time. At this stage of development, when peaches are out of the bloom, the immature peaches can't stand below freezing temperatures for any period of time. For 5-6 hours on Easter morning, crops from Jacksonville, Fla. to the Mason-Dixon Line were exposed to sub-freezing temperatures.
During period of peach development — in most years from mid-March to mid-April peach trees are sprayed almost weekly to control many different diseases and insects, all of which have the potential to severely affect a crop's marketability.
Peach thinning is completed during both the bloom and peach stage of development. Thinning is a process where blooms or peaches are actually removed from the tree by hand. This process is designed to reduce the crop load on the trees ensuring they will be able to produce the largest peaches with the best quality.
When the Easter freeze hit, most growers had completed bloom thinning and had already invested heavily in the 2007 crop. As Mother Nature proved early Easter morning, the most pristine of orchards and the best managed peaches cannot withstand long hours of subfreezing temperatures — not at this stage of growth.
When frost and freezing temperatures hit earlier in the growth stage for peaches, burning hay or other materials to raise the temperature a degree or two can make a difference. But at the stage of growth peaches throughout South Carolina were in on April 8, there was absolutely nothing they could do to protect their peaches, DuBose says.
The DuBose family has been growing peaches in and around Monetta for four generations. They are among the largest peach-producers in South Carolina. Last year they had a beautiful crop of peaches until a mid-May hail storm struck, causing a 60 percent loss. Following up that disaster was the Easter 2007 freeze. Both these crop losses coming after the family invested heavily in a new packing shed to better process and ship their peaches.
In 2007, the new packing facility will sit idle. A productive and loyal labor crew will have to find work somewhere else and in some other crop, because there simply aren't any peaches to pick in South Carolina.
“We could pack peaches out of our new facility, but there are no peaches to buy,” DuBose laments. The 2007 Easter freeze, he says, will hurt their family business for years to come. He explains that losing contracts and customers for a year, losing labor for a year, letting equipment sit idle for a year all have long-term negative impacts.
Perhaps worst of all, the peach trees still have to be maintained. “We can't just totally abandon the orchards in which we know there is a 100 percent loss. We will have to apply maintenance sprays to protect next year's crop, otherwise the damaged peaches left on the tree will open the tree up to every kind of disease organism imaginable,” DuBose says.
South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers says the freeze damage is comparable to losses to hurricanes and other weather-related tragedies. “We are asking the federal government to declare South Carolina a disaster area, so our peach farmers can qualify for low interest loans and other benefits to help them withstand the total loss of their crop in some cases,” Weathers says.
The Commissioner explains that each county has to be assessed and has to demonstrate at least a 30 percent loss. Once that is done, a report is submitted to the commissioner of agriculture, who submits it to the governor, who officially requests federal disaster assistance.
A concern is that damage to agricultural crops is so widespread from the Mississippi Delta to the Southeast that there will not be enough money to help all the farmers who will need federal assistance. The primary benefit of disaster relief will be to offer growers long-term, low interest loans.
Though Mike Dubose, his brother Al and his father, Tristan, grow a few acres of cotton and soybeans, peaches are the lifeline of their farming operation. “We will have more time to devote to cotton and soybeans, but those prices aren't great right now, especially cotton,” Dubose says.
“After the hail storm last May, we were waiting for the 2007 crop, now after the Easter freeze, we're waiting on the 2008 crop — that's a long time to wait,” Dubose laments.