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Jan 13, 11:11 AM EST

For Georgia's crops, cold weather has been a mixed blessing


ATLANTA (AP) -- Chilly weather in Georgia during much of the past six weeks has actually helped some parts of Georgia's agriculture industry.

While the freeze killed some kinds of plants and boosted fuel costs, it was also a blessing to some crops in need - especially those under siege by insects, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported .

How the season goes, and whether the economy overall has been helped or harmed, is still not certain.

"We won't know everything until the crop is harvested," said Jack Spruill, marketing director for the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

The stakes are great, since agriculture accounts for more than $75 billion in business and about 411,000 jobs in Georgia.

Those figures - from the University of Georgia - show that agriculture represents 8 percent of the economy and about 12 percent of the state's jobs.

Beginning Dec. 6, the temperature was below average in Georgia for 25 of the next 39 days - with many of those lows far below normal, the newspaper reported. It was the type of cold snap that could badly damage Vidalia onions - a $150 million-a-year crop.

Other vegetables were threatened as well.

Greens like collards and broccoli just can't handle the deep cold, said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

"We just don't know how much damage there is yet," Hall said.

Hall is somewhat optimistic, partly since much of the planting had not been done.

"But there were just not a lot of vegetables in the ground. If we lost everything, it would not be too much of a problem, but I don't think we lost everything."

The timber industry also depends on the weather.

With forest covering most of the land in Georgia - and the timber and paper businesses accounting for 144,537 jobs and $35.2 billion in business last year - a cold snap is worth paying attention to, said Chuck Williams, director of the Georgia Forestry Commission.

To help replenish cut timber, the commission sells more than 12 million seedlings each year - 10-inches tall and much more fragile than grown trees, Williams told the newspaper.

"They are very susceptible to cold and freezing damage," he said. "You have to be very careful with them if you know that cold weather is coming."

The best time to plant seedlings is in February, so most are presumably not in the ground yet, he said. But if they are mortally wounded by cold, they may not show it for many months.

The biggest immediate cost of the cold is probably in the poultry business, said Mark McCann, associate dean of UGA agricultural extension: Heat for chicken coops.

"The biggest added cost is energy," he said. "Georgia is the largest chicken producer. As they grow them from chicks to six- to eight-weeks old, those first couple weeks, they really need to be warm."

For some of the state's crops, the cold has been beneficial.

Cold weather triggers dormancy in some plants and trees, an enforced period of rest that is essential to their health as well as to their yield in the next harvest. The time spent with temperatures below 45 degrees is measured in "chill hours," and different plants need different amounts of the quiet-time it produces.

Peaches and blueberries need that dormancy, so their growers were delighted to have more chill hours in the past few weeks than in either of the last two winters.

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Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com

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