Blueberry and peach farmers across South Georgia were braced for some late harsh licks from a mild winter as temperatures were expected to drop below 30 degrees in the growing area, officials said.
Bacon County, Georgia’s self-proclaimed blueberry capital, is forecast to have a low of 28 degrees Wednesday night and that would be enough to damage existing fruit and blooms, said Renee Allen, the area blueberry agent for the Georgia Extension Service.
“I think growers are concerned about Wednesday night,” Allen said.
The plump rabbit eye blueberries are in full bloom and high bush varieties already have set green fruit, Allen said.
Since Bacon Countya farmers began planting rabbit eye blueberries bred for South Georgia’s climate, blueberry acreage has spread in all direction into Brantley, Appling, Clinch and other counties.
Blueberries seem to do especially well on land where pines were grown.
Many farmers have planted high bush varieties because they are mature early when supply is low and prices are good.
The ice crystals from frost damage the tissue of the fruit, and that can allow disease to set in, cause the berries to drop or become unmarketable, she said.
If the damage is widespread, it could be a blow to a crop that was worth $335 million in 2015.
That’s more than peaches and pecans, Allen said.
Farmers are taking precautionary measures in advance of the cold such as watering their fields, she said.
“The wetter the soil, the more heat can be pulled up from the ground to the bush canopy,” she said.
The old adage that nobody does anything about the weather holds true in farming, and Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has said there’s not much anyone can do but pray.
Julie McPeake, a Agriculture Department spokeswoman, said some churches in the growing areas for peaches and blueberries are holding organized prayer meetings.
“We’re worried especially for our blueberry and peach farmers,” McPeake said.
The Georgia Blueberry Growers Association encouraged growers and others to attend a prayer meeting Tuesday night at First Baptist Church in Alma.
“A group of blueberry growers are meeting to specifically pray for the blueberry crop,” the association said in an email. “If you can’t come, we encourage you to have a prayer service in your community and ask God for His mercy and blessing on our crops.”
Allen wouldn’t hazard an estimate on possible losses to blueberry farmers across the southern part of the state to the Florida line.
“I’m going to say potentially and hope for nothing,” she said of losses from cold. “A few degrees can make or break a crop.”
Freezing temperatures are expected to reach all the way to the coast with 30 degrees predicted near Brunswick Wednesday night. Tommy and Breena Witt grow blueberries in a “you-pick-it” operation called Blu-Witt Farms north of Brunswick.
“We’ll be OK. We’re going to have to freeze protect. We’ll probably run overhead irrigation,” Brenna Witt said.
The Witts’ high bush varieties already have set fruit, and although Witt said she found a few ripe ones recently, the berries won’t be ready to pick until mid-April.
“When it gets close to 38 degrees, we get ready,” to put some warming groundwater on the bushes, she said.
In the past, the spray heads on the irrigation system have frozen a few degrees above freezing, so the Witts turn them on early.
“You can’t wait until 33 [degrees],” she said.
Witt said she’ll be up every few hours checking the temperature the next few nights.
“We’re hoping the [low temperatures] come up a little, that the pumps run and everything goes OK,” she said.
Frost in inland counties is expected to continue through Thursday, but Allen said it will be several days before anyone can assess any losses.
“It takes time for some of these tissues to discolor and show damage,” she said.
Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405