It was Easter, a time of rebirth. But the arctic blast that blew across Alabama that weekend left only death and destruction in its wake.Corn that was beginning to spring to life amid 70-degree temperatures just days earlier was laid low, burned and bruised, as a fickle Mother Nature turned her thermostat down to record lows in the 20s.
One of the state’s best wheat crops in years, almost ready for the early May harvest, was left bent, twisted and fit for neither man nor beast. And peaches? Well, let’s just say you’d better get to the produce stand early this summer because those that survived will go quickly.No sooner had their dream of a golden growing season begun than Alabama farmers were awakened by the nightmare of Easter weekend 2007. Coupled with a dry winter and even dryer spring, it’s a nightmare that may take years from which to recover.Some relief, however, was in sight May 4 when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he would expedite Gov. Bob Riley’s request for a crop disaster declaration in 41 counties hurt by the freeze and the continuing drought. Johanns also is considering allowing livestock to graze and farmers to cut hay on land set aside for conservation.The declaration would allow farmers to get low-interest loans to replant, but Keith Gray, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s national affairs department, said loans aren’t really what farmers need. “Anything we get is obviously appreciated, but we’d really like to see a supplemental (appropriations bill), which puts a lot more money in farmers’ pockets,” he said. “My guess is that most of the guys already have enough loans. They need cash assistance to help them recover.”Federal aid for the crop damage fell victim to the Iraq war debate as President George W. Bush vetoed a wide-ranging spending bill that contained disaster assistance for crops planted before Feb. 28.Federation President Jerry A. Newby toured farms hit by the freeze along with Ron Sparks, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, who put preliminary estimates at $18.8 million in nursery losses and $56.7 million in fruit, crop and hay losses. Sen. Jeff Sessions also made farm visits to inspect the freeze damage, and joined Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby and Congressman Robert Aderholt in approaching Johanns for help.The Alabama Farmers Federation worked with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and the Farm Service Agency to monitor, compile and report damage assessments.Deacue Fields, an Extension economist, put horticultural losses at $8.3 million with nearly 3,000 acres of crops damaged by the freeze.”The commercial vegetable, nursery and turfgrass sectors of the industry had significant damage in many areas of the state,” Fields reported in his Freeze Damage Assessment. “The economic loss in these sectors results from decreased yields, costs of reseeding or resetting transplants, and sales lost during the period while crops recover.”The majority of the horticultural damage — 2,465 acres — was in peaches, where Fields estimates 80 percent of this year’s crop is lost, representing a $6.8 million loss in cash receipts.Apple orchards were hit even harder with 100 percent of the crop lost. “In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a complete loss on apples like we have now,” said Wes Isom of Limestone County. “We just have to hunker down in the trench, I guess. We’ve got nowhere else to go.”Isom said his saving grace is that he won’t be forking over the $85,000 to $90,000 he normally spends spraying 65 acres of peaches and 35 acres of apples. He also won’t have to spend the $30,000 to $40,000 it normally costs to hand-thin the peach trees. “I won’t have as much in labor,” he said, “but we’ll still have some labor costs in whatever we do. It’s just trying to make enough money to get us to next spring so we can do this again.”Doug and Sue Spradlin’s 250-tree peach orchard in Cullman County was also wiped out. “We’ll have vegetables and that’s about it,” Sue Spradlin told The Cullman Times. “(Doug) is planting something else just about every day.”Berries also took a hit as 5 percent of the blackberry and blueberry crops were destroyed. About 30 percent of the state’s strawberry crop was lost.In north Alabama, the damage was most evident to the wheat and cornfields. The Extension System’s Corn & Wheat Freeze Assessment noted that 75 to 85 percent of wheat acreage in northwest Alabama is a total loss, as is about 60 percent in northeast Alabama. “This wheat crop was the best I’d ever seen,” Stuart Sanderson of Limestone County said of his 650-acre crop. “We had some experts to come in from Kentucky, and they said it was anywhere from 85 bushels (per acre) and up. Now, it’s pretty much devastated.”Sanderson said even the wheat he could salvage was of such low quality it would be rejected by the flourmill. And since it has been treated with herbicide, it can’t be used as forage for livestock. Even wheat not treated became suspect after high-nitrate levels were found in freeze-damaged wheat.Extension’s assessment of damage to the corn didn’t fare much better. “The recovery weather after the freeze was poor,” the report reads. “The older, early planted corn just had no chance to recover.”As a result, many farmers like Sanderson, who had planted 1,400 acres of corn in anticipation of the $4.50 a bushel market price, had no choice but to plow it up and plant again.Extension’s assessment estimates that replanted corn acreage in northwest Alabama is about 40 percent overall with some individual farms replanting as much as 75 percent. In northeast Alabama, replanted corn acres ranged from 40 percent to 100 percent with an average of 65 percent. Some farmers, depending on the types of chemicals they may have already applied, were foregoing corn and switching to cotton or soybeans. “Luckily, our seed companies are coming back to help us a little bit,” said Jessie Hobbs of Limestone County. “I’m thankful for that. Some are giving 100 percent refund on replant. If you planted their variety the first time and come back with their variety on the replant, they’ll make up 100 percent of the cost. Of course, it’s a month later. They’re doing what they can, but you know, the corn had a stand. … Everybody keeps saying it was a ‘killing frost,’ but when you get to 20 degrees, you’ve got a freeze.” This article contains additional reporting by Kevin Worthington, director of the Federation’s Broadcast Relations.