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Southern Crops Damaged As Temps Drop

Frigid weekend weather caused frost that damaged crops across the Southeast, raising fears that peach, apple, blueberry, strawberry and wine grapes were harmed.

Cost estimates for the damage were expected later in the week, and Georgia's agriculture commissioner said he might ask for federal aid depending on how badly crops were affected.

"We know there is significant amount of damage through most of state, but it's too early to give what the final analysis will be," said Tommy Irvin, Georgia's agriculture chief.

One reason for the extensive damage was unusually warm temperatures in March, which caused crops to blossom prematurely, leaving them vulnerable to last weekend's frosty weather, reported CBS News correspondent Hari Sreenivasan.

In South Carolina, the nation's second-largest peach producing state after California, farmers prepared for the worst.

"I don't think there'll be a good peach out of South Carolina this year," said Raymond Cook, who grows 60 acres of peaches each season. "It's the worst I've ever seen."

South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said he was trying to remain optimistic so retailers would not be alarmed. "By the middle of the week we'll know just how severe it is," he said.

In Blount County, Ala., about 30 miles north of Birmingham, farmer James Witt said his fields of plums, peaches and pecans were completely lost. Crop damage in Chilton County ranged from 30 percent to 80 percent, depending on elevation, said Bobby Boozer, an area horticulturist.

In West Virginia, Alan Gibson's apple orchard had suffered early season weather damage from hail. After three days of freezing temperatures, he predicted a total loss on the 3,000 trees in his small, pick-your-own orchard in Harpers Ferry.

In Georgia, fruit has shriveled and leaves are turning black, said Frank Funderburk, an agricultural extension agent in Peach County, the heart of Georgia's peach-growing region.

"We're waiting to see how things turn out when we get some warm weather," Funderburk said.

South Carolina raised 100 million pounds of peaches last year but when temperatures dipped into the 20s in 1996, the state produced just 6.6 million pounds, according to Rhonda Brandt, director of the federal agriculture department in South Carolina.

Growers from West Virginia to North Carolina to Texas spent the weekend trying to save their crops as temperatures dipped into the 20s.

In South Carolina, Stacey Hardy used a sprinkler system to coat blueberries and strawberries with a layer of ice as protection. Experts say heat generated by the transformation of sprayed water into ice can keep plants healthy.

"We've been up for four nights, but we think we've protected them," said Hardy, of Hardy Berry Farm in Anderson. "This year was the worst."

Across much of the eastern two-thirds of the nation, Easter celebrants swapped frills, bonnets and sandals for coats, scarves and heavy socks. Baseball fans huddled in blankets and, instead of spring planting, backyard gardeners were bundling their crops.

See pictures from last week's spring snowstorm in the Plains and New England

Two weeks into spring, Easter morning temperatures were in the upper 30s along the Gulf Coast and in the single digits in northern Minnesota and the Dakotas. Atlanta had a low of 30 degrees, with a wind chill of 23, the National Weather Service said. The same reading hit New York City's Fifth Avenue, celebrated in song for the traditional Easter Parade of spring finery.
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