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Ag researchers say climate change is forcing berry growers to re-think their strategies.

John McCurry, Managing Editor

May 18, 2023

2 Min Read
Mississippi blueberry growers' hopes for a big season were dashed by a late freeze.MSU Extension

Mississippi’s blueberry growers were hopeful of a banner year. Then the dreaded late freeze happened near the end of March, dashing their hopes

Eric Stafne, fruit specialist with MSU Extension Service, described the damage as widespread, wiping out half to all of the crop in the southern part of the state.

“Only later ripening rabbiteye varieties will have much crop,” Stafne said.“Local berries will be hard to find.”

This is a scenario becoming all too common across the South.Researchers pin the blame on climate change. 

Pam Knox, agricultural climatologist and director of the University of Georgia Weather Network, said climate change is affecting fruit crops in several ways.

“Probably the biggest impact is from warmer winter temperatures,” Knox said. “In Georgia and the Southeast, winter is the season that is getting warmer the fastest, although I think that would be generally true across the country too. That means the number of chill hours accumulated over winter is decreasing. If you have early blooming varieties that have low chill requirements, then they get their chill hours early and are ready to bloom as soon as we have a warm spell.”

Knox said this makes fruit particularly vulnerable to spring frosts. If there are late frosts, fruit is even more vulnerable because they have more blooms, or possibly young fruit, which cannot take cold conditions for very long.

“If you have late blooming varieties, they run the risk of not getting sufficient chill hours and not blooming well,” she said.“It is a little ironic that this year the lack of chill hours for some of the late-blooming varieties may have saved some of the peach crop since with a more scattered blooming season, some flowers may bloom late, after the frost, and produce fruit where normally they would have been nipped by the frost.”

Knox said farmers reduce their risk by planting several varieties with different chill requirements. Installation of frost protection can help as long as temperatures aren’t too low for too long. She said in the future, farmers will have to adapt by planting varieties that do better in warmer conditions.

“We saw that commercial blueberry growers in Southeast Georgia were able to pull through this spring’s frost pretty well because it did not get really cold and not for too long, so they were able to protect using irrigation. Our smaller farmers in Northeast Georgia lost their entire blueberry fields overnight because the temperatures got low for a long time.”

One of the fortunate farmers is Malcolm McCoy, who along with son-in-law, former Atlanta Brave outfielder Jeff Francoeur, operates Major League Blueberries in Nicholls, Ga. McCoy’s farm was hit hard by a late frost last year, but survived this year.

“We made it through the freeze and are in our second week of harvesting,” McCoy said in mid-April. “Looks like a great year.”

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