Cold snaps S.C. farms: 'It's going to be tough'

Pete Ambrose looks over his ruined strawberry crop. Ambrose made the decision to cover other vulnerable crops at his Wadmalaw Island farm during the recent freeze. 1/9/14

It will take a few more days to assess how much damage Lowcountry and South Carolina farmers suffered from this week's deep freeze.

Some local farmers already have reported some damage, but a manageable amount. They said their greater pain was the time and effort involved in preparing their crops and livestock for the freezing temperatures.

As the weather warms, more farmers will learn exactly how much damage they face.

Sara Clow, general manager with Grow Food Carolina, said this week's freeze, on top of last summer's heavy rain, has made this a very challenging year.

"It's like getting kicked in both shins," she said.

State Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said it will take about a week to determine how much damage has occurred. He predicted relatively little effect on prices because the cold snap lasted just a few days, but that could change if another arrives.

Sam Weathers of St. George said he escaped any hard times this week because his row crops - including cotton, corn and peanuts - already had been harvested. "The livestock guys probably had a pretty tough time," he said.

In Colleton County, Marc Filion of the Keegan-Filion Farm reported losing about 70 young chicks during the past week as temperatures dipped as low as 17 degrees there.

The damage wasn't worse because the farm placed propane heaters around its buildings.

"We didn't lose any hogs, any laying hens and no cows or baby pigs," he said. "It's a 20-year anomaly. It's just one of those things you suck it up and you go. ... We're glad we got out with a 70-chicken loss."

Farmer Pete Ambrose of Wadmalaw Island said he sacrificed the blooms on his strawberries to move covering cloths to other acres to protect his beets, spinach, carrots and kale.

"Even if we had them covered, the berries were frozen," he said. "It was somewhat successful. It's hard to tell immediately afterward exactly how the crops are going to come out of the freeze."

Ambrose said he saw a clear difference between crops covered by cloth and those left exposed, and he said the biggest inconvenience might have been covering them up. "When the wind blows, it looks like Waikiki Beach because that stuff blows up and down like waves. I hope it worked."

The freeze also affected his waterlines, and during a Wednesday market, he sold only 10 percent as many carrots as usual because he couldn't wash them off first.

Grow Food Carolina works with more than 50 farms on the eastern half of South Carolina, and Clow said they will learn Friday or Saturday about the extent of their damage, which varies not only based on geography but on how farmers were able to prepare.

Clayton Rawl Farms in Lexington was able to cover some of their greens to protect them from the weather, but they could not cover everything. Workers at the farm say their greens, onions and cabbages were damaged.

Montez Hilliard of Hilliard Farms in Santee said he faces a major loss because his collard green crop suffered heavy damage.

Clow said that even if kale, collards and other crops survive, a cold snap can slow their growth, reducing profit for some growers.

"We brought stuff in today that was harvested Monday. Some of it still looks good. Some of it still has some damage on it," she said. "We'll see what is brought in at the beginning of next week. ... It's going to be tough."

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.