From the front porch, everything looked normal.
But when Linda Steele, an apple and peach grower in northwest Alabama, stepped into her orchard, her heart sank. Every bud she inspected had turned black. "It's a total loss," she says.
Usually it's hurricanes and ice storms, drought and floods, that do harm to the nation's breadbasket. This time, it was an Easter cold snap that rolled over the South and Midwest with a vengeance. Peach and apple crops have been wiped out. Strawberry, blueberry, and blackberry growers struggled with limited success to save their fruits. Wheat, corn, and alfalfa crops also took a heavy whack.
While it is expected to take several weeks to tally up growers' losses around the region, many farmers already know the damage is significant. Already gone are 95 percent of South Carolina's $35 million peach crop and 90 percent of North Carolina's potential $25 million apple harvest. Some states, including Georgia, may ask for federal emergency aid to cope.
The dire situation was brought about by a confluence of metrological events – an unseasonably warm March punched out in early April by a major cold snap. And it serves as a powerful example of how farmers may need to start adjusting crop variants and field methods to accommodate gradual climate change, agronomists say.
"This is what you might expect [of global warming]," says Jeff Volenec, an agronomist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "It isn't necessarily always a warmer climate, but a more variable climate."
Though subzero April temperatures down in the Gulf Coast generally occur about every 15 years, it was the early spring preceding the cold spell that left flowers beginning to blossom vulnerable to sudden weather change, agronomists say.
The breaking point for plants came this past weekend when the temperatures dipped below 25 degrees F. for three days.
It capped a "strange weather year" that had an early cold fall, a mild winter, a chilly February, and T-shirt temperatures in March, says Kevin Hardy, who owns the Hardy Berry Farm orchard in Anderson County, S.C. "The plants tried to bear fruit all winter long," he says. "Right now, we're picking strawberries during the day and doing frost protection at night."
In Nebraska, climatologists had to cull through data from the 1920s to find evidence of a similar event. Apple farmers in western North Carolina say the last time a spring cold snap destroyed nearly the entire harvest, as this one did, was in 1955. The heartland's "big chill" is the second freeze this year. In January, California had a four-day cold snap, and has since received $7.45 million in state and federal aid.
Extension specialists already urge farmers to plant varietals of the same crop instead of a single high-yielding variety to "spread the risk out," says Dr. Volenec. Hardier, later-blooming varieties, however, tend to have lower yields, and mean higher prices at the supermarket.
While foreign imports help insulate supermarkets from price hikes in case of a freeze, consumers this summer are likely to find more expensive food at local farmers' markets and fruit stands, if they can find fruit at all. In the broader market, wheat futures rose 30 cents Monday on fears of a damaged crop, especially in Kansas, before falling to an average increase of 9 cents for the day. Farmers reported much of the crop laying down and starting to smell from fermentation. Crop insurance usually only covers about 60 percent of the crop's value.
Still, many farmers sought to salvage their fields. A peach farmer in North Carolina set up giant fans around his orchard to increase circulation and raise the temperature while berry farmers turned on their watering systems to activate starch metabolism in the plants' roots.
But there was nothing Ms. Steele could do. In the 20 years she's owned the orchard, she had never seen her 2,000 apple trees and 300 peach trees look so lifeless. "An eerie feeling came over me that I'd never experienced before, seeing such a sad situation," she says.