Growers keep watchful eye on weather

Thomas Singley, a Locust Grove farmer, said he is hoping the upcoming season of growing crop is better than last.

"Normally, I don't get enough rain, but this past year, I got too much," said Singley, 76. "One week it was too hot, and the next week it was too wet."

For much of his life, Singley has lived on the 130-year-old family farm his granddaughter affectionately named Little Hope Farm.

In the past, he has tilled some six acres, for fruit and vegetable crops, including tomatoes, corn, beans, blackberries, and blueberries. He said he has scaled back on his ‘u-pick' crop in recent years.

Farmers hope to avoid two major headaches in cultivating crops — "the cold weather, and the hot weather, with no rain," Singley said. "I'd rather have the cold weather; a lot of vegetables can withstand the cold, if it doesn't frost."

Georgia's unusually cold winter means that two of the state's most famously sweet crops are at risk for damage, later this winter, or early spring, noted State Climatologist David Emory Stooksbury, in his climate report released this month.

Stooksbury wrote in his report that Georgia's blueberry crop is worth $102 million annually, while its peaches are worth $60 million.

"Peaches and blueberries require a certain amount of cold weather counted in chill hours, or hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit," said Stooksbury. "They need this cold period to bloom, and set fruit properly in spring. In most years, this cold period protects the plants from blooming too early. If plants bloom early, it is more likely that the blossoms or fruit will be killed a late-winter or early spring freeze."

The state climatologist said most peaches and blueberries grown in Georgia need between 400 and 700 chill hours to break dormancy and bloom. However, the entire state has experienced at least 750 chill hours since Nov. 1, 2010, with most locations receiving more than 1,000 chill hours. He said Griffin, Ga. experienced 1,412 chill hours in the days between Nov. 1, 2010, and Feb. 10, 2011.

"This is the first winter on record that Georgia has experienced a colder-than normal-winter, while the atmosphere was in a La Niña pattern," Stooksbury said.

"The reason that it has been so cold is that another atmospheric pattern has overpowered the La Niña," he explained. "The Arctic Oscillation, or AO pattern has been at near-record strength, pushing the unusually cold winter in the eastern U.S. and Europe."

Stooksbury said the short-term forecast is for the AO to weaken, returning Georgia to more typical winter, and early spring La Niña weather patterns.

Temperatures for the remainder of this week are forecast to hold in the mid-to-upper 60s for high temperatures, with mostly sunny skies throughout the Southern Crescent, according to data from the National Weather Service.

"With warmer temperatures, peaches and blueberries will prepare to bloom," Stooksbury said. "A couple of weeks in the upper 60s and 70s will lead to early blooming. If plants bloom early, then there is a greater probability that they will be impacted a freeze. It only takes one freeze to destroy the crop for a year," he said.