Early spring has caused a big headache for farmers as menacing freeze approaches

Farmhouse in Broome County, New York after the huge nor'easter storm.
Source: Judi Whittaker

The powerful March storm packing cold air to portions of the nation's Southeast and Midwest is becoming a menace to farmers.

"We'll definitely have temperatures that are dangerous to tender blossoms," said Al Pearson, who runs a peach farm operation in central Georgia.

Peaches and other stone fruits are notoriously early bloomers and makes them especially vulnerable to frost damage. A report released at the end of February by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed that as a result of warmer winter weather "many fruit crops were in full bloom" in Georgia.

"There are a lot of things that are in jeopardy, including peaches in the Southeast," said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the USDA. "When you start temperatures getting below 28 for any length of time for a couple hours or more, that can wipe out a peach crop in just a night or two."

The Southeast region accounts for more than a quarter of the U.S. peach crop, with Georgia among the biggest producers.

According to Rippey, the huge nor'easter will "help drain the cold air across the Southeast." The meteorologist said there are a variety of freeze warnings up as far south as Arkansas, as well as a good chunk of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Freeze conditions are expected to peak Wednesday morning and on into Thursday.

Dairy calf with a winter coat in St. Johnsville, New York.
Source: Judy Littrell

Weather impacts also were felt to agriculture in the East Coast region where as much as 2 feet of snow fell in some places.

"The real question is if the weight of the snow will be a concern on barns and outbuildings and on fruit trees and vines," said Steve Ammerman, a spokesman with the New York Farm Bureau.

Even so, Ammerman said it's still too early in the storm to know the full extent of any damage. He also said farmers were helped because they had plenty of notice to prepare for the monster storm.

That said, the loss of power to some farm communities could present issues.

Storm Stella sparks state of emergency
Storm Stella sparks state of emergency

"A lack of power can also be of concern for dairy farms that need to run a milking parlor," said Ammerman. "However, farms hopefully have generators."

The strong winds and low temperatures also pose a risk to livestock. Last year, a blizzard killed thousands of dairy cows in parts of Texas and New Mexico.

Ahead of a cold weather forecast, livestock producers typically will move cattle to wintering areas away from the wind and to where they can reduce the chance of animals getting injured. Also, cows are sometimes given extra feed to withstand the low temperatures.

Elsewhere, the cold snap is being closely watched for any impact on wheat. A freeze forecast issued for portions of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky could cause permanent damage to the crop and reduce yields.

"The one area that will see damage is to the soft red winter wheat crop," said David Streit, co-founder and COO of Commodity Weather Group in Bethesda, Maryland. "With the lows getting into the teens the next couple of nights that crop will see some damage inflicted on it."

The area with the biggest risk represents about 10 percent of the national soft red winter wheat area. That variety of wheat is used primarily for bread and cake flour.

The nation's winter wheat crop is especially vulnerable given the unseasonably warm weather in January and February, which resulted in the crop running about three weeks ahead in its normal development.

"The cold temperatures later this week are definitely something we're going to keep an eye on," said Terry Reilly, a grains analyst with Futures International in Chicago.

The nation's wheat futures markets in Minneapolis, Kansas City and Chicago were lower across the board Tuesday but only showed marginal declines.

"I think it's one of those things that there's so much wheat in the world that until we start seeing some major problems where we are actually seeing damage that the markets are going to be slow to react," said Ted Seifried, an analyst at the Chicago brokerage Zaner Group.

A global wheat glut has depressed prices for several years. However, the outlook for wheat prices might be changing, according to analysts.

Figures from the USDA show more than 20 percent of the nation's winter wheat production is within areas experiencing drought conditions, including Oklahoma, Colorado, Missouri and Kansas.

Overall, U.S. wheat acreage is lower this year and the crop in Australia is struggling. Also, damage to the nation's wheat crop from the frost or drought conditions could further reduce supplies and ease the downward pressure on prices.

"We're kind of fixing the problem with too much wheat," said Seifried. "It's just going to take some time to do it."