June 2007
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Fruit and Vegetable Producers Had Little Say Over the Easter Freeze, but They Can Avoid Another Drought

  According to Burl Slaten (left), Decatur/Morgan County Farmers Market manager, Irish potato plants got burned by the freeze, but they’re coming back. James Hancerd (right) from Limestone County was the first at the market to have new potatoes.
According to Don Wambles, director Alabama’s Farmers Market Authority, "Tree fruit from Birmingham north was devastated. Central Alabama also suffered from the freeze. Fortunately tree fruit in parts of central and south Alabama was spared."

The nights of April 6 and 7, 2007, spelled disaster for most fruit and vegetable growers north of Montgomery. Decatur was the coldest place in the state that Saturday night before Easter with a sustained low of 23 degrees for much of the night.

Burl Slaten, manager of the Decatur/Morgan County Farmers Market said the cold got most of the fruit in Morgan and surrounding counties. "The freeze killed apples, peaches, plums, blueberries and grapes/muscadines. The plants will come back but they won’t rebloom. Pecans, walnuts and most pears are gone. A few late apples might make it. All our peaches are gone. They tried everything they knew to save them…overhead irrigation, big heaters that blow hot air and I hear some even tried helicopters to blow warmer air down…nothing worked. I hate it too, because it looked like it was going to be a big crop and peaches are real popular here at the market. Some of these peach growers had already sprayed their orchards five or six times. Their insurance money will make up for most of their input costs but, their crop money is gone. It’s just lost.

The translucent, woven material held by Robert and Marilyn Champion comes in 26 x 300 foot rolls and held the heat in long enough to save their strawberry crop during the Easter freeze of April 6 and 7.  
"Blackberries will be ok for the most part and it’s possible that we’ll have a few late-blooming blueberries, but we don’t know yet. The people with strawberries put row covers over their plants and managed to save their crop. They’ve got a super crop of strawberries this year. I think they paid about $300 an acre for the cloth and saved just about all their fruit. Strawberries sell for $12 a gallon. If you’re averaging selling eighty gallons from an acre, a day, you’d be crazy not to spend that little bit of money to protect them!

"Our market has more locally grown fresh vegetables and fruit going through it than any other market in the state of Alabama. We sell only locally grown produce from counties adjoining Morgan County and from Blount County. The reason we allow vendors here from Blount is because a lot of people prefer Blount County tomatoes. The taste of locally grown vegetables and produce is better; the texture is better and you don’t have to worry about the preservatives being applied to your produce or what chemicals from other countries are doing to your health.

"A lot of people got fooled by that warm February and March and planted tomatoes, beans and squash. But, they’ll do ok because they just turned right around and replanted what was frozen."

Burl knows that the growers associated with his market couldn’t do anything to control the Easter freeze but that they all COULD have done something to control last growing seasons’ drought.

  Truck farmers Robert and Marilyn Champion and Marilyn’s mother, Rita Williams, switched off the county water on their farm when they put a well in and bought this plastic mulch applicator that puts the drip irrigation tape down at the same time as the plastic. Robert says the machine paid for itself the first year they used it.
"We’ve been trying to get more growers to irrigate and several did put in wells after it didn’t rain last spring and summer. Drip irrigation is essential if you’re a vegetable grower. If you irrigate, you don’t have to worry about a drought and you’ll easily make four times the produce you would make on dry ground. On top of that, if you have raised beds and use plastic mulch, you can get at least a two week jump on people who don’t farm that way. I put in an irrigation system at my house on two acres and added $6,000 a month to my bottom line growing just corn, peas, beans and okra. That ain’t bad money!

"Three of our growers, Robert and Marilyn Champion and Marilyn’s mother, Rita Williams, switched off the county water when they put a well in and now all they’ve got is a little light bill. Their well pumps about 25 gallons a minute. This doesn’t sound like much, but when using drip irrigation, you don’t use that much water. You can roll the drip tape up at the end of the season and reuse it for three years. They bought a plastic mulch applicator that puts the drip tape down at the same time as the mulch. Robert told me that the machine paid for itself the first year they used it."

Robert knows better than to count on rainwater to irrigate his farm. "If you’re not going to irrigate, you’re not going to make it," he said. "This past year should have proved that to everybody. The government helped me put my well in and they’re encouraging other vegetable farmers to put them in as well."

Foy Kirkland, District Conservationist, Morgan County USDA, National Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS), said, "We have a 90% cost share with what we call Limited Resource Farmers. Those producers would have to show an income on their 1040 of $22,282 or less. The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) is opened to any agriculture producer who produced and sold at least $2,000 of an ag product the prior year and the program can pay for 50-75% of the cost of drilling a well for irrigation." He added that all funds have been obligated for 2007 but producers are encouraged to apply now for the cost share program for next year.

For further information on state EQIP programs you may contact Steve Musser, Assistant State Conservationist, NRCS Auburn office at 1-800-342-9893.

For information on Alabama EQIP go to: www.al.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/eqip/index07.html.

And for information on programs for Limited Resource Farmers go to: http://www.lrftool.sc.egov.usda.gov/index.htm.

For information on other NRCS programs look on the web at: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs.