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Extreme weather leaves Alabama with several crop shortages this summer


A sudden winter freeze in spring left many Alabama farmers’ crops diminished or completely destroyed. This summer, farmers markets, grocery stores and farm stands across the state are feeling the impacts of this freeze as several crops remain off the shelves.

Alabama had an unexpected period of winter freeze during the third week of March. Meteorologists reported temperatures between the 20s and low 30s that week, when the typical temperature for that time is anywhere between the high 30s and low 70s. Blake Thaxton is the executive director of the Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, which is an affiliate with the Alabama Farmers Federation. Thaxton said the freeze wiped out many fruit crops statewide.

“You’ll find a few areas [or] pockets where some of our fruit made it through the late March freeze, but peaches, blueberries, apples [and] plums were all highly affected by that freeze,” he said. “It was a crucial time of development, and we’re definitely going to see a lower yield this year across the state and even in some neighboring states as well. Peaches definitely took the hardest beating and blueberries as well. Strawberries’ yields were diminished but not wiped out like some of those other crops.”

Thaxton said the freeze negatively impacts farmers, who have to maintain their crops this summer without making much money from them.

“These farmers rely on the income from these crops year to year,” he said. “I’ve been on a peach farm in Chilton County, where there’s virtually no peaches on the trees. Farmers still have to fertilize those trees. It’s a perennial crop, not a one-year crop. Those stay year to year, so you have to fertilize them and still apply the fungicides to keep the trees healthy for the coming years. They’re spending a lot of money to keep their trees healthy, but they’re not going to have the income to help pay those bills.”

Thaxton said the freeze also negatively impacts everyday shoppers and consumers in Alabama.

“If you make a big effort to get locally grown product, you’re just not going to be able to find it as easily,” he said. “You can still find some peaches that are grown in Alabama. I was in North Alabama a couple of weeks ago and found some grown in Cullman County. The benefit you get with these local products is the flavor. It’s so much better because they don’t have the transit time from the farm to your table that out-of-state [imports] and imports from other countries have. We’re just going to miss out on that really good produce that we are so accustomed to having.”

While crops like peaches and blueberries felt the brunt of this spring freeze, Thaxton said not all hope is lost. Row crops like corn, peanuts and soybeans did not feel the same pressure that fruit crops did.

“It’s not as crucial a time for row crops,” he said. “Some of our winter row crops like wheat were damaged a little bit, but wheat is primarily a cover crop. Farmers aren’t expecting a huge yield from wheat across the state, so that was the most damage to the row crops. Most of our summer row crops, the staple row crops, like peanuts, corn [and] soybeans were not planted yet. They weren’t affected too harshly.”

In addition, Thaxton said several crops are doing really well this summer. They include watermelons, sweet corn, Southern Peas and other vegetables like cucumbers, squash and tomatoes.

“Summer seasonal vegetables are doing just fine,” he said. “It’s always a challenge to grow produce in Alabama because we have an extreme environment with a lot of humidity, rain and extreme heat. But our farmers have been able to overcome that for generations now. I would expect [these crops] to do well through the rest of the season.”

Thaxton said while farmers had nothing they could do to avoid the extreme weather, there is help available for farmers in need.

Governor Kay Ivey issued a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack, in May. Vilsack responded by issuing a natural disaster designation for certain counties in Alabama. The secretarial designation gives farmers an opportunity to receive financial assistance through emergency loans. Thaxton said farmers in need of a loan have eight more months to take advantage of the opportunity. Farmers can contact their local Farm Service Agency to find out if they are eligible for these loans.

Alabama Extension and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station at Auburn University are also hosting Field Days this summer for farmers to learn everything from precision irrigation and pest control to corn and cotton production system management.

Thaxton said despite the losses farmers took this summer, Alabamians could see their favorite fresh fruit in the coming seasons.

“They’re not going to recover this season, but farmers are doing everything they can to have healthy perennial fruit trees available for future seasons…” he said. “[Farmers are] going to continue to provide the best-tasting produce for the people of Alabama in the future. Farmers don’t give up easy, and it’s a good thing because [of] all the variables they have to combat every year. They’ll be ready with fresh peaches, plums, apples, strawberries [and] all the good stuff we love in the near future.”

Alabamians can visit the Sweet Grown Alabama website to find where their local farms are selling produce. Thaxton said now is an important time to help Alabama farmers get through the difficult season.

Joshua LeBerte is a news intern for Alabama Public Radio.
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