La Ni±a slows production

Sometimes it’s not easy being a leafy green, even in the Southeast.

The region’s crop found life tough this past winter, when intense cold snaps at peak harvesttimes cut volume up to 50 percent for some growers.

Growers Larry and Brett Corn inspect greens at L&M’s Palatka, Fla., farm. The combined effects of intense winter cold spells and premature spring warmth have slowed the company’s volume in Georgia and Florida.

“This impacted us at the wrong time – that peak period when you count on the greens to carry us,” says James Kilby of Georgia Vegetable Co. in Tifton, Ga., where three cold spells starting in December either left affected plants dead or severely damaged. “I’d say we had 30 to 50 percent damage in some areas,” he says.

Mike Robinson, vice president and general manager at Duda Farm Fresh Foods in Belle Glade, Fla., reports that greens surviving frigid episodes during the La Ni±a winter had excellent quality.

The weather was a bit of an aberration: it was the first winter on record in Georgia in which colder-than-normal temperatures occurred while the atmosphere was in a La Ni±a pattern. A La Ni±a typically delivers a warmer and drier-than-normal winter. However, forecasts are based on probability, and the least likely scenario prevailed.

“The loss sometimes is not a complete loss in the way of losing a plant,” says Kilby, whose farm devoted about 100 acres to an assortment of greens. “You may lose a cutting period, but with temperatures in the teens and very low 20s, it may kill the plant.”

Seemingly overnight, warm weather appeared prematurely, prompting regrowth that included blooming and seeding, making other greens too bitter to market.

“With the weather patterns we’ve had the past few years, it’s been weird,” Kilby adds.

Bad timing

Cold damage is not unusual in January and February, and sometimes “it’s not even bad enough to worry about,” says Powell Smith, Clemson University extension associate in Lexington County, S.C. “The problem this year was that it occurred before Christmas, so we had some yield loss, and we were having to hunt and pick collards to fill New Year’s orders. Mustard and turnip [greens] had to come from out of state. Normally it’s after Christmas when we have to deal with that.”

Charles Wingard, director of field operations for Walter P. Rawl & Sons, Inc. in Pelion, S.C., points out that it only took a few days of the extreme cold to trim his company’s volume by about 15 percent.

“Even with a milder-than-normal winter, a short period of time – two or three days – can inflict the damage,” says Wingard, whose company had around 700 acres of greens planted in the fall, including collards, kale, mustard and turnip greens. He says two of the episodes were a “dry cold, which is terrible on the greens.”

The romaine and iceberg lettuce at Duda Farm Fresh Foods’ Belle Glade, Fla., operation was not spared. Mike Robinson, vice president of Duda and general manager of the Belle Glade farm, says when frozen outer leaves had to be removed from the lettuce, yield was also lost.

“For the first couple of weeks following the freezing weather this winter, the Belle Glade farm experienced about a 50 percent loss of yield,” he says. The operation experienced another 20 to 30 percent loss with subsequent freezes, although Duda crops were able to return to normal yields.

Texas felt the cold’s sting. At Winter Garden Produce near Uvalde, Texas, the cabbage suffered when temperatures were below freezing for 72 hours. A hard freeze followed four days later.

“It really took out a lot of the cabbage we had planted for the May time slot,” says J. Carnes, president of Winter Garden. “The plants never could quite recover.”

The company lost about 150 acres designated for that slot, and has since replanted for June. Older plants fared better and were being harvested in March. The grower devotes about 1,200 acres to cabbage.

“We try to keep everything wet, and we had wells going throughout the freeze,” Carnes says. “I think the watering helped some, but I don’t know how much.”

February’s winter weather caused major delays at J & D Produce, Inc. in Edinburg, Texas.

“Our supply was interrupted anywhere from 10 days to four or five weeks just depending on the commodity, what stage of growth it was in, and how long it would take to grow out of it,” says Jeff Brechler, who handles sales and production for the company.

Affected varieties included collards, mustard and dandelion greens, Swiss chard, cilantro and parsley. J & D devotes about 4,000 acres to greens.

Delayed produce

Even with the damage, many producers reported they were able to return to normal yields in February and March.

As Robinson of Duda put it in March, “All operations are back to normal and the crops look great.”

Some growers found the surviving plants produced high-quality greens, while others were frustrated because early warm weather prompted seeding out.

“We’re still feeling the effects of [the winter cold], and in the last two weeks the greens have seeded out because they were stunted,” says Adam Lytch,manager of farming and warehouse operations at Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Companies, Inc. “Up until now, we’ve just been slowed down by the cold.”

The company farms about 1,500 acres of greens in Georgia and Florida, including collards, kale, mustard and turnip greens. Lytch says it’s not easy to quantify the impact to production, but he did predict a more limited supply this spring.

Vegetable grower Gibbs Patrick Jr. of Patrick Farms in Omega, Ga., says it took the company about two months to get back on track with its greens yield.

“In January and February, the weather really created problems on the leaves. We haven’t missed any orders, and we’ve kept all of our customers going,” Patrick says.

Cleaning the greens and picking off the bad spots contributed to the slower pace, but Patrick says that is crucial to keeping clients happy.

“It’s just time-consuming,” he says. “A lot of people don’t clean like we do, and a lot of people don’t go to the effort to meet supplier needs.”

Looking ahead

Growers say they will not make major adjustments to their operating strategies for this fall as they begin to plant greens.

“The only measure of preparation that can be taken for anticipated freezing temperatures is to raise the water level under the crops – the moist ground retains more heat than dry ground,” says Robinson. “The cold will affect crops differently. For example, younger leafy crops may grow out of any damage to cut leaves. The location of the crops may also make a difference, since temperatures may not be consistent across the farm.”

In some cases, growers may use floating ground covers to mitigate cold damage, but Smith says it’s an expensive strategy. The covers may cost around $1,200 per acre and require significant manpower to install.

Wingard confirmed that Rawl has used covers on its farm. “We do cover about 50 acres a year, but at that time of the year I’ve probably got about 500 acres that could use it,” he says. “I have to kind of pick and choose what I want to cover, and I have not yet picked the right thing.”

Bo Herndon of L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms, Inc. in Lyons, Ga., says the vegetable grower lost about 30 percent of its collard, turnip and mustard green yield to the cold.

“People have forgotten we used to have winters like this if you think back 15 years ago,” Herndon says. “You can try to do something to prevent it, but there’s really nothing you can do,” he concludes.

Jennifer Paire is a freelance writer based in Canton, Ga.