(April 16, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) FORT VALLEY, Ga. — A spring freeze on Easter has hurt Georgia blueberries and peaches.

The April 8 freeze — which saw temperatures plummet to the mid-20s — destroyed up to 70% of the state’s blueberries, and early estimates put peach crop losses at 20% to 50% of production.

While cold temperatures hit the state’s southern growing region, which accounts for most of Georgia’s vegetable production, freeze damage primarily hit the central and southeastern sections.

The 60% to 70% blueberry loss should affect fresh and frozen blueberry markets, said Keith Mixon, president of Winter Haven, Fla.-based Sunnyridge Farm Inc., which has growing operations in Baxley and Homerville in the southeastern part of the state.

“The damage has been done to the early and late crops,” he said. “It certainly will affect late May and June availability.”

Jerry Vanerwegen, one of Sunnyridge’s growers, said one of his fields near Argyle lost 100% of its berries.

“It’s kind of sickening,” he said. “It killed them all.”

Before the freeze, Georgia growers expected to produce a crop of 25 million pounds. The cold snap, however, could cut production down to 10 million pounds, Mixon said.

Temperatures hit 26-27 degrees for three to four hours April 9 in west-central Georgia, where most of the state’s commercial peaches are grown.

“We have had some cold damage before, but never this late in the season,” said Mark Sanchez, chief operating officer of Lane Packing LLC, Fort Valley, Ga.

Because recent cold weather slowed fruit development, Sanchez said growers may not know the precise amount of damage until April 17.

Sanchez and Duke Lane III, vice president of sales, examined the interior of some of the immature fruit. Discoloration generally means freeze damage, and many peaches didn’t show substantial damage, Lane said.

Georgia peach production normally begins in mid-May, with volume peaking in June.

Before the freeze, Lane expected to pack 750,000 half-bushel (25-pound) cartons of peaches from 2,600 acres.

GEORGIA VEGETABLES

For the most part, the state’s spring vegetables survived without serious damage, with losses in the 10% to 15% range, said Charles Hall, executive director of the La Grange-based Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association.

Green bean production, which was hurt the most, likely lost 10% to 15%. While the freeze caused some burning to squash, most of the vegetables, Hall said, likely will rebound.

The state’s signature Vidalia onion crop escaped injury.

“They are fine,” said Joey Johnson, sales manager for Oconee River Produce, Mount Vernon. “They can handle the cold weather.”

Steve Cody, president of Marker 29 Produce Inc., Onancock, Va., which has an office in Lake Park, said his growers lost 10% to 20% of their early green beans.

Damage was spotty, he said April 12.

One field in a low spot was hit hard while other fields survived unscathed, Cody said.

He said eastern parts of Georgia saw more green bean damage than western growing areas.

Shay Kennedy, co-owner, vice president and sales manager of Georgia Vegetable Co. Inc., Tifton, said the frost harmed cucumbers and squash the most in low-lying areas of the state’s southern growing regions.

“There will be a delay in harvesting, along with beans,” she said. “Overall, I think we fared well.”

Roy Burkett, a salesman with South Georgia Produce Inc., Lake Park, said the freeze burned a few tips of southern Georgia squash.

“For the most part, we dodged a bullet,” he said.

Charles Warren, owner of Adel-based Warren Farms Inc., said the region experienced a little damage but escaped severe injury when temperatures hit 32 degrees.