Originally created 03/12/98

Freeze endangers peach crops



RIDGE SPRING - Usually farmers who linger outside Granny's Country Kitchen talk about the greasy fried chicken, NASCAR great Jeff Gordon and the recent rains that seem never-ending.

But this week, nervous chatter is about record-low temperatures expected for the next few days and its devastation to the peach crops along the Ridge. South Carolina is the nation's second-largest peach-producing state after California, with 20,000 acres of peaches worth an estimated $35 million.

Tonight, temperatures are expected again to dip into the low 20s and middle teens in Georgia and South Carolina.

Farmers checked orchards and fields Wednesday for damage from the late-winter freeze that sent temperatures plunging as far south as Florida, endangering budding fruit trees and plants and sending wheat future prices higher.

With several bitter nights still predicted, farmers may not know until next week the full extent of damage to fragile buds that were coaxed to bloom early by a mild, wet winter fueled by El Nino.

Across the Southeast, blueberries and onions were a concern in Georgia and strawberries in the Carolinas and Alabama. Nursery owners in Tennessee worried about garden plants. But Florida's $1 billion citrus industry was out of danger with most of the early and midseason oranges already picked.

There is also concern that frigid weather could hurt yields of winter wheat. Wheat futures began rising sharply on the Chicago Board of Trade on Tuesday amid fears the winter wheat crop could be damaged.

Torrential rains have set back corn planting and only about 10 percent of South Carolina's 300,000 acres is planted. But that may be a good thing, row crop farmers say, because that's less corn that can freeze.

"Farmers didn't want to see this (cold) `cause many are already hurtin' as it is," said Johnny Salters, who hauled peaches for more than 30 years before retiring. "I've seen the day when there weren't enough peaches in the orchard to make a decent pie."

Two years ago, five separate frosts wiped out about 98 percent of South Carolina's $35 million crop. This year, El Nino is blamed with bringing a mild, wet February to the region, starting many plants blooming early. But fruit-bearing trees, especially the peach, don't like moist ground or temperatures below 28 degrees. It's extremely crucial when temperatures dip into the mid-20s because buds can die at 23 degrees.

Farmers in Aiken and Saluda counties said they won't be able to assess the damage to their budding fruit trees until this weekend at the earliest. It could take as long as 10 days to know the impact. But they're preparing for the worst.

On an 18-inch limb, farmers say they can have a bountiful crop if there are at least three good peaches on the branch.

"We know there's going to be some damage, but the real worry is the unknown," said Tracy Childers, co-owner of Monetta Peach Packers. "We're just waiting it out."

Jimmy Forrest stood within his orchard in Ward, S.C., a sea of pink to his back.

"I predict that about one-third of the early varieties on the Ridge are dead," said Mr. Forrest, a third-generation farmer. "But the July, August varieties should be a (bumper) crop."

Many farmers in the area are still trying to bounce back from the freeze of 1996 and the hail of 1997.

"If it's not one thing, it's another, " said Al DuBose, whose father, Tristan, operates W.M. DuBose and Sons, a third-generation farm.

"It's gettin' harder every year," Mr. DuBose said.

And with dwindling insurance coverage, farmers said its harder to recover year after year. A decade ago, insurance would cover about $500 an acre -- $325 more than today. At $175 an acre, that won't cover even a third of the cost for production.

"We're sticking our necks out for the rest of the costs," Mr. Forrest said. "It's nothing more than a gambling game. But everybody outside is really hurting. "

The Associated Press contributed to this report.