Sudden freeze spares farmers

Temperatures dropped across the Carolinas in a late-season cold snap Wednesday that had farmers scrambling to protect their budding harvests, remembering the blast of cold April air two years ago that caused millions of dollars in crop damage.

State officials and farmers said crops, including apple and peach orchards just beginning to blossom, appear unharmed, but they won't know for sure for several days.

"The weather's a funny thing," said Mildred Lyda, who grows 20 varieties of apples on her family-run farm in Hendersonville. "It's just a wait-and-see thing. With apples, they tell us to go out and protect them with blankets. What most of us do is pray."

In South Carolina, temperatures dipped to 29 degrees in some areas but lasted only an hour or two early Wednesday. North Carolina, which suffered nearly $112 million in crop damage in 2007, saw temperatures hover around freezing.

But it looks as if 2009 will not be a repeat of 2007, said Brian Long, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Farmers reported no immediate damage, but a statewide assessment will be made in 24 hours.

"It's hard to say," Long said. "It looks like last night's cold snap was going to be a single-night occurrence, and that's good. From what I've heard, people are being cautiously optimistic."

Apples and peaches, which are most at risk because of their blooming schedule in the next few weeks in both states, could take several days for their cores to blacken if affected. Blueberries also are at risk.

Farmers in Western North Carolina, which experienced temperatures in the low 30s and high 20s, seemed to survive the frigid weather with little damage.

Jim Land, who runs J & A Orchard near Taylorsville, said his 10-acre apple farm is blooming, and he's preparing them for regular cover spray. The fruit will be ready for picking by July. Land said severely damaged apples will usually begin to brown and turn mushy within a few days, but that hasn't happened.

"Everything's intact," he said. "We survived this one."

National Weather Service forecasters said temperatures were expected to reach the 70s on Friday. Meteorologist Russell Henes said the coldest weather likely came Wednesday morning, far from North Carolina's four-day cold snap that brought temperatures in the teens in April 2007.

"If it just reaches the 30s, farmers are going to say, 'Whew, we escaped a bullet,'" said Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops for the N.C. Farm Bureau.

In South Carolina, farmers reported minimal damage as freezing temperatures lasted only an hour or two overnight.

Temperatures dipped to 32 degrees or below in seven of South Carolina's 17 official reporting stations Wednesday morning, including 29 degrees at Rock Hill and McEntire Joint National Guard Base east of Columbia.

Many peach and berry growers spent most of the night preparing for the worst -- just like they did two years ago when delicate peach blooms froze and destroyed most of the state's crop.

"We think we'll be OK," said Walker Miller, who grows blueberries and other fruit at his small farm in Pickens County. "We sweated a lot, but had spent a lot of the winter building the infrastructure for this."

By 6 a.m. Wednesday, Miller had turned on wind machines to protect his berries from temperatures that dipped below 32 degrees.

Despite the cold weather, the state expected to produce its normal average of around 60,000 tons of peaches this year, said Amy London, executive director of the South Carolina Peach Council. Peach growing is a $40million industry in the state.

"It was like we were just kissed by Mother Nature. She just came through and reminded us that she was still there," she said.