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Freezes good, bad news for Georgia farmers

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

In late January, Old Man Winter took a bite out of the state as the coldest weather of the year hurt some farm crops but helped another, University of Georgia experts say.

Much of the state was below the freezing mark for several days. Temperatures got as low as the mid-teens -- not unprecedented, but rare -- for extended periods in some important farm regions.

Most of Georgia's field crops, like peanuts, cotton, tobacco and corn, don't like these temperatures and grow in spring and summer. But some important, tasty cash crops, like onions, greens, collards, cabbage and kale, are grown in the winter.

Stunted onions

Cold winter weather has stunted the growth of the Vidalia onion crop, said Reid Torrance, the Extension Service coordinator in Tattnall County.

The onion-growing region in the east-central part of the state has had nighttime temperatures below freezing "for quite some time now," Torrance said. This has caused onions to put on "pitifully little growth" since their November planting.

"Even before this cold snap we were losing plants," he said. Tattnall County farmers planted about half of the expected 14,000 acres of Vidalia onions this year.

When onions don't grow well, they become susceptible to diseases, even minor diseases, Torrance said.

Actually, the punch of the recent cold snap could have been much worse if the onion crop was maturing at its normal pace, he said.

The main, edible part of the onion grows underground. The soils around Tattnall County froze to a depth of three inches. Though the ground thawed out the next day, the freezing temperatures may have caused the cells of more mature onion bulbs to rupture. You can't sell that onion, he said.

Onions prefer nighttime lows around 40 degrees Fahrenheit and daytime highs around 60, Torrance said.

The next month will tell much about Georgia's Vidalia onion crop this year. "Once we get some good growing conditions," he said, "that's when we'll see what really got damaged (during the freeze) and what's going to grow."

Vidalia onions are harvested in April.

Chilled peaches

Unlike the onions, Georgia's sweet peach crop actually enjoyed the recent cold snap. This year's winter has treated it kindly, said Kathryn Taylor, a peach expert with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"The cold has not really harmed us yet and has overall been great for the crop," she said.

Peaches need so many chill hours (below 45 degrees) during the winter. Depending on the variety, they need from 400 to about 1,000 chill hours to perform well during the growing season, she said.

"We have had enough chill to fulfill all chill-hour requirements," she said.

But timing is everything when it comes to the overall health of the Georgia peach crop, she said.

"We are several weeks from bloom in middle Georgia," she said, "and in the early stages of bloom for the earliest varieties in south Georgia."

Any severe cold weather from now until harvest in spring would be a problem, she said.

But what helps one crop, again, can hurt another.

Veggies vary

Like the onions, other winter vegetables, like cabbage, kale and turnip greens, didn't like the freezes, said Terry Kelley, a UGA horticulturist.

"I'm sure we got a fair amount of freeze damage on a lot of our winter crops," he said. The most tender of the crops, the greens, probably felt it most.

"The damage from weather like this can vary," Kelley said. "It depends on the amount of irrigation that has been applied, the lay of the land and tree lines along fields."

But the extent of the damage, much like the onions, won't be known until closer to harvest, he said.

Cabbage and greens and other such crops, when put under the stress of extremely low temperatures, will go into their reproductive stage sooner. This could lower the quality of a sellable crop.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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