Local farmers with crops in the field got an unwelcome surprise as April arrived, with a cold front rolling through the Aiken-Augusta area, but crop damage was reportedly minimal, and some roadside stands are now sporting strawberries, one of the popular signs of leaving winter behind.
Peaches are still about a month away, but recent reports are generally upbeat, focusing on the situation in Edgefield, Saluda and Lexington counties – South Carolina's most prolific peach territory. Local asparagus is also now appearing in markets.
"Very little damage" is the assessment that came from Jason Rodgers, vice president of operations for Titan Farms, which is the United States' largest peach producer east of California, and includes acreage in Saluda, Edgefield and Aiken counties.
"We're in good shape. We've actually been in the fields all week thinning … We'll be thinning the crop over the next few weeks to get the trees ready to have a crop," he said.
Rodgers, whose base of operations is Ridge Spring and also includes bell peppers and broccoli, said his company's expectation is for peach sales to start around May 10-12, leading into a season that normally runs into early September.
"We haven't had a normal year in four or five, but just the way the calendar's lined up … it looks like this is going to be a normal-timing year."
Another local grower, preferring to remain anonymous, speculated the earliest local peaches of the season could be available for sale in late April.
Gurosik's Berry Plantation, in the Sweetwater area of Edgefield County, focuses overwhelmingly on strawberries and had a low temperature of 24 degrees during the cold snap, but water was applied to lay down a coating of ice and keep damage to a minimum.
"We took no strawberry damage," said owner Clyde Gurosik. "We had a little bit of damage to some of our vegetable plants – things that were very temperature sensitive, like cucumbers and pickles. Even with full protection, they're just too sensitive, so we had to replant some of them, but the strawberry crop looks great. No problem there, and likewise, the blackberries came off great too."
Gurosik's recent challenges have included bringing up the entirety of his migrant workers amid a border situation that has posed huge challenges over the past couple of months in particular. Two of his most experienced workers who return year after year are still stuck in Mexico, he noted.
He also reported that some peach growers in other parts of the state sustained substantial damage from the nights of April 2-3.
"The strawberries … were not affected by the freeze," said Matt Forrest, co-owner of Dixie Belle Peaches, in Ward. "We were able to cover them and protect them, and they've been a little later this year, because of the colder winter and the cold spring, but they're looking great. It's going to be high quality and good yields."
Sales began April 1 and are likely to continue through early June, he added.
Forrest also addressed peaches and the recent weekend chill. "We had a scare, I guess you would say. It got a little colder than we were expecting, and we had some frost and had a little bit of thinning in some low-lying areas, but for the most part, we're still looking really good. It's a good-sized crop. We'll start over on May 10 and … go for a full season, to the end of August."
Jerry Watson, co-owner of Monetta-based Watsonia Farms, in Aiken, Lexington and Saluda counties, gave a similar report. "The strawberry crop's real good, and the peaches look good – plenty of peaches."
Local fields, in the course of the next month, are also on track to produce such items as squash (yellow and green), eggplant, tomatoes (round, grape and cherry) and bell peppers, said Watson, whose operation specializes in USDA-certified organic produce.
The South Carolina Department of Agriculture website shows a variety of "specialty crops South Carolina farmers will harvest in the coming months," and the April items include arugula, asparagus, beets, blueberries, bok choy, cabbage, carrots, cilantro, collards, fennel, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuces, microgreens, mushrooms, mustard and turnip greens, onions, parsley, peas (sugar and snap), radishes, rutabagas, strawberries, Swiss chard and turnips.