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America’s Fruit Crops in Shambles Amid Uncanny Weather

Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: August 24, 2022
Frost and drought has left US fruit farmers' crops in shambles
Watermelon for sale in New York City in May of 2020. Fruit crops this year are in shambles across the country as a combination of mid-to-late season drought combined with early season moisture and frost have destroyed the harvests of generational farms. (Image: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

The state of U.S. agriculture is far from one of a prosperous and bountiful condition.

In recent weeks, we’ve learned that not only are both the cotton, tomato, and the corn crop in historically dangerous shape, but that even cattle ranchers are sending breeding stock to feed lots in preparation for slaughter because of historic drought plaguing areas such as California and Texas.

But America’s fruit farmers in regions such as South Carolina have also been impacted in ways generational ranchers haven’t experienced in decades of operation.

And while the impact has likewise been tremendous, fruit crop harvests have been crushed by another form of uncanny weather: early season moisture and cold seen as far back as March.

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For example, Post and Courier reported on Aug. 19 that Sumter, South Carolina watermelon farmer Bradford Family Farm had “failed to produce for the first time since he rediscovered his family’s heirloom variety that dates to the 1850s.”

Owner and operator Nat Bradford was forced to deliver the bad news to area businesses who order as many as 350, 400, or even 1,500 watermelons annually that this year, there would simply be no supply.

Bradford explained, “I lose sleep over whether we’re not going to have enough melons every year; that they’re all going to be what people expect them to be.” 

“The watermelons, it’s what’s put us on the map, but it’s certainly the crop that’s the most stressful for us,” he added, explaining that the plant, which is sewn in May, requires 85 days of warm soil and hot days to bear proper fruit.

“This is my first and hopefully only watermelon crop loss in my lifetime, and it is a loss in many ways,” Bradford said.

The source of woes appears to be rooted in a March cold snap that saw temperatures fall as low as 19F (-7C), reported Clemson College of Agriculture in a six month old report.

The school stated at the time that “peaches and other fruit crops appear to have survived the recent cold snap, but only time will tell.”

When the calamity struck, peach trees were already “in pink to full bloom stage when the icy temps hit,” the article stated.

The damage sustained came despite extensive effort by farmers, who employed wind machines to attempt to generate a warm vortex around the orchard to mitigate harm from frost.

“As soon as the sun went down, temperatures dropped. Blooms from those orchards where wind machines were used look better than those not protected but temperatures were so low we’re not sure how much damage was done,” Clemson Cooperative Extension Service agent Andy Rollins told the school.

One area farmer who manages 75 acres of peach trees told Post and Courier he lost as much as 40 percent of his peaches because of the calamity.

Another owner of “one of the largest certified organic peach farms in the state” lost 75 percent of his 2022 peach crop.

A third area peach farmer was paraphrased as stating that he knew after the frost that fruit was damaged, but even among healthy looking peaches, “Upon further inspection later in the season, more peaches that appeared to have a pristine exterior were less desirable inside.”

Some customers who bought fruit reported their peaches having a shattered pit inside, a symptom of heavy frost damage in the early growth stage.

Post and Courier explained that as time went on, the early season frost damage coupled with June drought conditions also rendered one area blueberry farm to lose as much as 95 percent of their bounty.

The article stated that the family’s “drip irrigation system can only produce a small percentage of the water that would arrive during a steady rainfall.”

The farm was forced to shutter for the year as early as June 29 and “was only open for four days out of the four- to six-week blueberry season.”