Crops fall victim to Winter 2017's drastic temperature swings

Across the Southeast, drastic temperature swings are taking a heavy toll on crops. The combination of a warm February -- and recent cold snap has farmers scrambling to keep produce from freezing to death.

“It was a bad night. Yeah. And the plants took a beating,” said Drew Echols, who lost more than $1 million this week. 

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Crops bloomed early due to the unusually warm Feb. -- and then were hit by bitter cold temperatures in early March. 

CBS News

The fifth-generation farmer pulled back these protective tarps, and winced. One-third of his strawberry crop is dead. 

“The strawberries are actually a whole lot worse than I expected,” Echols said. “It’s just the way this winter system slammed into the Southeast down here. It came down hard and fast.”

His 140 acres of peach trees got it worse. All that pink blooming are vulnerable peach buds, which opened three weeks early because of the unusually warm temperatures this winter. 

The deep freeze killed half of his peach crops. Across the region, farmers are counting their losses. 

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Drew Echols’ peach buds opened three weeks early because of the unusually warm temperatures this winter

CBS News

Gary Black is Georgia’s agriculture commissioner.

“This could be a $200 million night, and in worst-case scenario, it would be easy to say we’re in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Black said. 

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In south Georgia, blueberry fields fell in a deep damaging freeze in early March. 

CBS News

The wild weather is wreaking havoc for farmers across the region. North Carolina peach farms looked like a winter wonderland, overhead irrigation tried to insulate the crop from freezing temperatures and winds.  In South Carolina, protective covering would save the state’s strawberry crow. Even in south Georgia, blueberry fields fell in a deep damaging freeze.

Is the worst of it over? Echols says “that’s the question of the hour ... If it’s not, I might as well quit.”

All this week, the overnight low was in the mid-20s.  Some good news: Thursday’s low should stay above freezing. But all these peach trees and their open, vulnerable buds will stay vulnerable for three more weeks until the final frost sometime in mid-April.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.