COLUMBIA, SC — Workers at Cottle Strawberry Farms have struggled to keep plastic insulation sheets over their fields this week as high winds complicated freeze threats.
The National Weather Service issued another freeze warning for much of the Midlands for Wednesday morning. That’s four freeze threats in the past week. The coldest temperature in Columbia last March was 35 degrees, and that fell on March 6.
While the temperatures haven’t stayed low enough long enough to create severe agriculture losses, the cold snap is creating problems.
At Cottle’s fields in Richland and Florence counties, keeping the plastic sheets anchored to protect berries from the cold has been a challenge the past few days and nights. “We had the sheets on a quarter of the field blow off,” said farm owner Joy Cottle. “My son was out there until 3 a.m. trying to protect the field.”
Cottle doesn’t expect the quality of the berries to suffer, but the late cold snap will hurt profits by shortening the picking season. Last year, the you-pick-em Cottle fields opened on March 17. While Cottle pulled back the plastic to allow a few early pickers the weekend of March 16-17 this year, the full-scale season has yet to begin.
“After Thursday, we’ll pull back the plastic to see if we have (ripe) berries to pick for the Easter weekend,” Cottle said. “This has been a different winter. It’s nail-biting time for all farmers.”
The state Department of Agriculture hasn’t received any reports of major freeze-related problems, but damage often isn’t clear until long after a freeze, said assistant commissioner Martin Eubanks.
The ultimate damage depends on the location of the freeze, the duration of the freeze and the stage in the growing cycle when the freeze hits. In general, the freezes have been colder and longer in the Upstate, but fruit trees in those areas are more acclimated to late freezes. In addition to fruits and berries, the late cold can impact wheat, oats and melons, Eubanks said.
Phillip Coombs, owner of Mountain View Blueberry Farm near Batesburg, said the cold mornings don’t appear to have caused any problems for his 7,000 blueberry plants, which he doesn’t cover.
“It looks like we’re going to be all right,” Coombs said.
But like Cottle, he expects a shift in picking dates this year. Last year, people could pick blueberries in mid-May. It’s looking more like the typical early June start this year.