“That was devastating because we had some we thought were surviving the freeze,” Harper said. “Then they just dropped to the ground.”
Aside from the late Arctic blast, January through March was the hottest such period on record in Georgia, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Temperatures statewide averaged 56.4 degrees, more than 6 degrees warmer than the 20th-century norm.
Scientists say human-caused climate change is making the state’s winters warmer and worsening wild temperature swings, posing new challenges to farmers statewide.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week declared a host of rural Georgia counties as natural disaster areas due to the freezes. Farmers lost about 90% of their peach crop statewide. The declaration allows the USDA’s Farm Service Agency to offer emergency loans to impacted farmers in the designated counties.
Blueberries in southern Georgia were not hit as severely, but Harper’s Deer Creek Farm in Covington produced 80% fewer blueberries than the past two years, Harper said.
Harper’s blueberry growing started largely as a hobby. But as the family kept growing the fruits, her daughter and grandkids never wanted to pick the blueberries because it was always too hot, she said. This prompted Harper to file for a farm application and turn the operation into a “U-Pick Farm” where people can pick their own fruits.
The small, family-run farm has grown to about 200 blueberry plants. A staple of Deer Creek Farm is its homemade blueberry iced tea, made from its own berries. The Harpers had “big plans this year” to ramp up iced tea production and send it to retailers. But the loss of crop from the freezes prevented them from doing so.
“We’re not able to make it in a quantity high enough to sell to retail stores,” Harper said.
It has been more than just the March freezes, too. June brought torrential rain on cotton crops in South Georgia, which suffered hail damage and swamped fields that will potentially delay the harvest. Pecan farmers also reported heavy rainfall making it hard to tend the orchards in large tractors.
Bart Davis, a cotton farmer in South Georgia, was out of his fields for nearly two weeks in mid-to-late June. The University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension cotton agronomist, Camp Hand, almost had a tractor stuck in the mud during that time. South and Southwest Georgia saw two to six inches more rain than normal this June, according to UGA Extension’s agriculture and climate blog.
The blog is run by Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at UGA. Knox said there is always variability in the weather year-to-year. Based on that variability, you cannot pinpoint climate change as a cause of these conditions.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Climate change, however, can make already adverse conditions worse, Knox said. Typically hot temperatures could become hotter, and rainy conditions could become wetter. Dry conditions paired with the increased temperatures can quickly increase the likelihood of drought, Knox said.
“Climate change is a risk multiplier,” Knox said.
Still, weather patterns show that Georgia’s winters are consistently warming, Knox said. This could be a sign that trends of early blooms followed by sporadic spring frosts could continue. The state’s blueberries were damaged by this pattern even worse last year, when an estimated 54 million pounds of the crop were lost.
Zilfina Rubio Ames, a small fruit specialist for the UGA Cooperative Extension Service, has been tracking these weather patterns for the last five years. Her blueberry research has started focusing on how farmers can deal with warmer temperatures and sudden cold snaps during crucial times in the growing season.
One potential solution is plant growth regulators, of which one type could delay the early blooms. These types of regulators have already been used on grapes, Ames said.
“It’s been happening probably in the last five years,” Ames said. “We definitely need to understand what is the most costly damage this is causing to our growers; what do they need help with.”
At Deer Creek Farm in Covington, Harper started planting more vegetables to make up for loses caused by the freeze.
Georgia is no longer the country’s top peach producer — that title now belongs to California — but the fruit still holds icon status in the Peach State.
This year’s freeze isn’t the first disaster that fruit growers have endured in recent years. Around 80% of Georgia’s peaches were destroyed by a freeze in 2017.
In Fort Valley, near Macon, Pearson Farm is picking and packaging its last peaches of the year.
The damage done by the freeze has left the farm with only about 4% of its typical crop, said Lawton Pearson, a fifth-generation farmer and partner at Pearson Farm. Pearson said that yield is a historical low not felt since 1955.
There were two specific peach varieties, the Blaze Prince and July Prince, that made it through the stretch of frigid days in March. The farm will be on the search for other resilient varieties while also upping investment in wind machines that bring warm air down on the peaches during cold snaps.
Those varieties that made it through are also some of the best the farm has picked, Pearson said, thanks to improved conditions from March until now. The setbacks have offered opportunity for growth in future years, he said.
“When you go through something like this, it’s not necessarily unhealthy,” Pearson said. “It’s unhealthy if happens again, and again, and again. But one year of this, it’s been educational.”
-Staff writer Drew Kann contributed to this report.
A note of disclosure
This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at https://www.ajc.com/donate/climate/