It's still too early for precise figures, but Georgia blueberry growers estimate at least a 15-percent crop loss as a result of the recent freeze.
"It will take another couple of weeks to really see the full damage because the flowers still have to open," said Rusty Bell, president of the Georgia Blueberry Growers Association. "Then we'll be able to see how much damage has been done. And when we harvest, we'll know a lot more, too."
Georgia growers begin harvesting their earliest varieties of southern highbush blueberries as early as mid-April and May. The main harvest of rabbiteye blueberries, the later varieties, starts in June.
Growers Make More on Early Berries
Though the actual damage isn't known, Bell does know the freeze will hit growers' wallets. "The main fruit we lost," he said, "is from our early varieties when the fruit sells for $3 to $4 a pound. For the rest of the season, the fruit sells for 70 cents a pound."
Georgia's blueberry crop is in the southeastern counties of Pierce, Bacon, Appling, Clinch and Ware. With 30 percent to 40 percent of the crop sold on the fresh market, most berries are sold frozen.
"Our berries, both fresh and frozen, are shipped all over the United States and outside," he said. "Japan is a really big fresh buyer, and we're trying to open up some markets in Taiwan."
The freeze seems to have spared Florida and North Carolina blueberries, Bell said, either because it didn't get as cold as in Georgia or the plants weren't flowering yet.
The flower holds the key. If the plant's bloom dies, the fruit dies with it.
Planning for Freezing Temperatures
Growers can take precautionary measures against potential freezes. But this one hit too hard.
"A light freeze of 26 degrees or so we can prepare for, but not one in the teens," Bell said. "Usually the cold will just affect pollination. But this freeze killed everything down inside the bud."
Given enough notice, growers use frost protection to prepare for freezes. Through sprinklers, they spray plants with a quarter-inch of water per hour or more.
"This sounds odd, but as ice forms it heats up the plant," Bell said. "As long as water is continually applied and freezes to form clear ice, the plant temperature will remain around 28 to 32. However, this approach can only be used when there is no wind, or for temperatures in the low 20s."
Of Georgia's 4,500 acres of blueberry plants, 200 acres are southern highbush varieties and the rest rabbiteye types. The southern highbush plants were hit hardest because they bloom first.
"Rabbiteyes like Tifblue and Brightwell saw just a small amount of damage because they flower a little later," Bell said. "Only about 20 percent of the whole rabbiteye crop was hurt."
New UGA Variety Bred to Bloom Later
Bell says blueberry growers need a variety that flowers later but still matures early. Alapaha, a new University of Georgia and U.S. Department of Agriculture rabbiteye introduction, is just that.
"This new variety blooms 10 days later than Climax, the most popular early-season rabbiteye," said Scott NeSmith, a horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "Ten days doesn't sound like a long time. But it can make all the difference in the world when a freeze hits."
"Everyone I've talked to is excited about the new release," Bell said. "It sounds good, but we want to get a couple of rows in and treat them like real farm plants and see for ourselves. Field conditions with commercial picking will be the real tests."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)