Originally created 03/13/98

Farmers brace for frigid night



AIKEN -- South Carolina farmers spent Thursday checking their fields for damage and bracing for another night of frigid temperatures.

A mild, wet winter enticed fruit trees and plants to bloom early this season. Now those buds sit vulnerable against the bitter temperatures that have engulfed the region during the past few nights.

Near record low temperatures were expected for much of the state Thursday night, with temperatures predicted to dip as low as 15 to 20 degrees.

With at least one more bitter night expected tonight, farmers may not know until next week the full extent of their crop damage.

Edgefield County peach grower Larry Yonce surveyed his 1,000-acre peach orchard and braced for the worst.

Peach growers, he warned, are facing a disaster comparable to two years ago when late freezes destroyed 95 percent of the state's $35 million peach crop.

"We have a potential catastrophic situation," he said. "We're just in a very grave circumstance."

The damage to peaches in South Carolina and Georgia could send consumer prices up 30 percent later this spring, said Scott Rawlins, a commodity specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.

"Based on what I've seen, I don't see how that peach crop is going to survive," he said.

"This is almost a duplicate of 1996 when we had a 95 percent kill," Mr. Yonce said. "That's almost as much on our minds as what is happening presently."

Prices for other produce will be up as well, a combination of last year's hurricanes in Mexico and damage in the Southeast and California from El Nino-fueled winter storms, Mr. Rawlins said.

Farmers like Billy Ledford, a strawberry grower in Marietta, S.C., also prepared for a third straight night of subfreezing temperatures but already knew they had taken a hit.

Mr. Ledford planned to spend the night unfreezing sprinkler heads that spray water to protect fragile blossoms.

The constant spray keeps blooms at around 32 degrees, warm enough to survive temperatures that Wednesday night dropped to 14 degrees on the 12-acre farm in the mountains near the North Carolina state line.

"I'm thinking right now we have a solid 25 percent loss and could be bumping 50 percent," Mr. Ledford said. That would be a loss of $60,000 -- a number that could increase after another night of bitter cold.

Unlike farmers, local plant nurseries have the option of moving many of their plants inside from the cold.

"We moved a lot of the tender stuff inside -- that's about all we can do," said Bo Coward, owner of Coward Corley Seed Co. in Aiken. "But we've got a lot of stuff, and it's impossible to move everything inside."

Ann Hutchins of Three Star Vineyards in Johnston says vines have become so saturated with water because of recent rains that they're in danger of freezing and cracking.

"We need a lot of prayers for a lot of farmers," Mrs. Hutchins said. "There's really (else) nothing we can do."

Associated Press reports were used in this article.