Cold weather a mixed blessing in Georgia agriculture

All that is cold is not bitter.

And the chill that gripped Georgia during much of the past six weeks has actually been a blessing to some parts of the state’s agriculture. While the freeze killed some kinds of plants and boosted fuel costs, it also was a salve to some crops in need – especially those under siege by insects.

How it all shakes out – and whether the economy overall has been helped or harmed – is still not certain.

"We will know more in two weeks than we know now," said Jack Spruill, marketing director for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. "We won't know everything until the crop is harvested."

The stakes are pretty high.

Agriculture accounts for more than $75 billion in business and about 411,000 jobs in the state, according to the University of Georgia's Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. That is 8 percent of the economy – the largest single sector – and roughly 12 percent of the state's jobs.

Starting Dec. 6, the temperature was below average in Georgia for 25 of the next 39 days – with many of those lows far below normal. That’s the kind of streak that can badly damage Vidalia onions – a $150 million-a-year crop.

Many other vegetables were also threatened.

Greens like collards and broccoli just can't handle the deep cold, said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. "We just don't know how much damage there is yet."

Vegetables (besides onions) are a $200 million-a-year business in the state, according to the UGA agribusiness center.

Hall is fairly optimistic, since the cold has abated and much of the planting had not been done. “But there were just not a lot of vegetables in the ground. If we lost everything, it would not be too much of a problem, but I don’t think we lost everything.”

With forest covering most of the land in Georgia – and the timber and paper businesses accounting for 144,537 jobs and $35.2 billion in business last year – a cold snap is worth paying attention to, said Chuck Williams, director of the Georgia Forestry Commission.

To help replenish cut timber, the commission sells more than 12 million seedlings each year – 10-inches tall and much more fragile than grown trees, he said. “They are very susceptible to cold and freezing damage. You have to be very careful with them if you know that cold weather is coming.”

The best time to plant seedlings is in February, so most are presumably not in the ground yet, he said. But if they are mortally wounded by cold, they may not show it for many months.

Some plants are more “cold hardy,” including some that are especially bred to be that way.

UGA recently patented a kind of citrus trees – including oranges, grapefruit and tangerine – that are not only seedless, they can grow in weather that would wipe out a Florida grove, according to Lindy Savelle, who has many of them growing on her farm in Mitchell and Thomas counties, both a little more than 200 miles south of Atlanta. "Whoever thought that citrus would grow in Georgia? But it does very well here."

In just three years, about 42,000 of the cold-hardy citrus have been planted here, a number she expects to see doubled by year’s end, she said.

As for the cold snap, “you’ll have to see what the long-term effect is, but the short-term is very good,” she said. “And the colder you can get it without freezing it, the sweeter it is.”

The biggest immediate cost of the cold is probably in the poultry business, said Mark McCann, associate dean of UGA agricultural extension: Heat for chicken coops.

“The biggest added cost is energy,” he said. “Georgia is the largest chicken producer. As they grow them from chicks to six- to eight-weeks old, those first couple weeks, they really need to be warm.”

Yet for some kinds of plants, the cold is just what the horticulturist ordered.

The cold triggers dormancy in some plants and trees, an enforced period of rest that is essential to their health as well as to their yield in the next harvest. The time spent with temperatures below 45 degrees is measured in “chill hours,” and different plants need different amounts of the quiet-time it produces.

Peaches and blueberries need that dormancy, so their growers were delighted to have more chill hours in the past few weeks than in either of the last two winters.

Warmer-than-usual weather alone would hurt production in peaches and blueberries. And while cold is needed, it better come before crops start growing again. Last year, there was warm weather when the cold was needed and then, as they started to bloom, came a devastating freeze.

Peaches and blueberries saw production plunge more than 70 percent, state officials say.

The warmer than average winters also fueled the breeding of insect pests that prey on plants and trees. Most damaging of them is probably the whitefly, which spreads diseases that are often fatal to crops – especially snap beans, squash, eggplant and pepper.

The whitefly has struck in parts of south Georgia, especially Colquitt and Mitchell counties. The impact is painful, but uneven, said Spruill of the agriculture department.

“If you are under the umbrella of the whitefly territory, your devastation can be beyond belief,” he said. “But if you are outside, you don’t even know they are around.”

Pesticides don’t work. But freezing temperatures are deadly.

"The good thing about a freeze and cold weather is that it kills insects," said Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. "The best way to attack the whitefly is cold weather and last year we just didn't have much."

And for some crops the cold was a two-fer: more dormancy time and far fewer murderous bugs, he said. “Right now, no one has a bigger grin on their faces than the people in peach production.”

Top Georgia counties for agriculture production

Franklin $401.8 million

Colquitt $473.2 million

Madison $452.1 million

Hart $445.4 million

Mitchell $356.1 million

Tattnall $322.1 million

Source: University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development

Top Georgia counties for agricultural employment 

Hall, 17,505

DeKalb, 10,656

Gwinnett, 10,189

Cobb, 8,795

Forsyth, 6,643

Lowndes, 6,436

Source: University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development

Georgia, value of top agriculture products

Broilers $4.28 billion

Eggs $937.1 million

Beef $923.4 million

Cotton $713.1 million

Peanuts $684.6 million

Source: University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, data 2015

Chill hours – the number of hours below 45 degrees in peach-growing areas

Oct to Jan 7

Winter before last: 271

Last winter: 318

This year: 660