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Georgia Vegetable Growers' Hopes Chilled

Just as Georgia vegetable growers had recovered from a midwinter freeze, Mother Nature put the chill on again.

"Most farmers who decided to replant after the early- February freeze were hit again with almost total losses in greens," said Terry Kelley, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"Georgia greens producers sustained near 100 percent losses for the second time in close to five weeks," Kelley said.

Farmers who had planted greens, onions, cabbage, watermelons, tomatoes, peppers or squash face losses and the cost of replanting again.

Vidalia onion growers were hit hard, too. "This latest freeze almost assures us of 40 percent losses in this year's onion crop," Kelley said.

Based on 1995 prices, Kelley expects a monetary loss close to $31 million in onions alone.

The March freeze caused less physical damage to the onion bulbs, Kelley said, but more hidden damage that may not show up for a month or more.

"The cold makes the onion think it's completed its life cycle," he said. The resulting seed stems make the onion unmarketable.

The freeze has caused a lot of distorted leaves, too, which enable diseases to invade. That can further reduce the onion quality. "It's like adding insult to injury," Kelley said.

But he stresses to farmers the importance of selling only top- quality onions. "The losses from the actual freeze would be minor compared to how inferior onions would affect prices in future years," he said.

In early February, Kelley figured 90 percent losses in mustard, turnip, kale and collard greens. Most growers decided to replant as the weather warmed back up -- just in time for the next arctic blast.

Kelley said greens and other winter vegetables were also damaged in the early-March freeze. Some farmers who planted early and lost crops to the early February freeze had either retransplanted or direct-seeded second crops.

The March freeze wiped out virtually all of the direct-seeded vegetables. And retransplanted cabbage is suffering critically.

Cabbages were hit hard, but not as hard as leafy greens. Kelley feels sure that many of the cabbage plants left are likely to bolt (produce flowers and seeds), though, instead of producing heads.

Growers won't know how much of the crop will bolt until a few weeks before harvest.

Some farmers in the southernmost Georgia counties had already planted summer vegetables, adding to the total damaged acreage.

The freeze killed most of the tomatoes, peppers, squash and watermelons already in fields.

"Most of the very small amount that was out already was planted almost too early," Kelley said. "Producers were looking to get their harvest to the markets first for higher prices."

Many vegetable growers can still replant their crops. But for some greens farmers, this will be the third planting in their fields, adding to their costs. Their later harvest can mean losses at the market, too.

Vegetables that reach the market first generally sell for higher prices. When more produce reaches the market later in the season, prices tend to drop.

Jack Frost may nip at shoppers' wallets, too. Prices will likely rise, since less produce will be available, Kelley said.

It's still early in the season, so summer crops weren't wiped out, he said. There's still a long time between now and harvest to make up for these very early season losses in summer crops.

"Farming is always a roll of the dice," Kelley said. "So far this winter, Georgia vegetable farmers are coming up with snake eyes."

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