Cold snap snaps Missouri crops
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Cold snap snaps Missouri crops

Date: April 10, 2007
By: Gavin Off
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri could lose as much as three-quarters of its wine production this year because of mother nature.

Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, said warm weather, followed by the recent freeze, could destroy 75 percent of state's grapes. Seventy-five percent, he said, was a conservative estimate.

Because of the warm spring, many primary and secondary grapevine buds had already popped, Anderson said.

"That's bad news," Anderson said.

Anderson said the freeze likely killed 90 percent of the primary buds on Missouri's grapevines. But bigger problem could come this summer, when wineries find out if the freeze also killed the vines themselves. 

Anderson said the loss could devastate the state's 1,200 acres of grapes and 66 wineries, which produced some 750,000 gallons of wine last year.

"There's no way to protect against this," Anderson said. "It's one of those freezes you have every 50 or 100 years. It's just very, very unusual for Missouri."

Replanting vineyards costs between $10,000 and $15,000 an acre, Anderson said. The high price and the five years it takes for vines to mature could scare some small or elderly farmers out of the business.

But Anderson said this year's wine production should hold steady, thanks in part to the previous years' holdovers. Wine drinkers, he said, would feel the shortage in the coming years, when consumers could see increased prices for Missouri wines, he said.

"This is really bad," Anderson said. "I don't recall a worse spring than this. I've never seen it this widespread."

The recent cold snap, when temperatures dipped as low as 18 degrees across the state, damaged -- if not destroyed -- much of Missouri's early crops.

Farmers and agricultural officials said the freeze did not only damage vineyards, but also hurt wheat and corn, among other crops, leaving farmers to wait until temperatures increase before knowing the true extent of the loss.

The outlook for many crops, however, is grim.

"Everybody is kind of sweating bullets about it down here," said Mike Geske, corn farmer and president of the Missouri Corn Growers Association.

Geske farms about 2,000 acres near Matthews, located in the "bootheel" region of southeast Missouri. He had some 820 acres of corn planted "and growing beautifully" before temperatures began to decrease late last week.

Tuesday Geske said the corn that had broken the surface so magnificently is dead, leaving Geske hoping the seeds still have enough energy to grow new plants.

Geske said he was guardedly optimistic that the loss would be limited to the corn stalks above the ground. But he'll know for sure after a week of warmer weather, he said.

"I'm 56 years old and I've never seen anything like this," Geske said. "I've never seen a freeze on corn this size."

According to the National Weather Service, temperatures at Columbia fell to as low as 26 degrees on Friday, 19 degrees on Saturday and 23 degrees on Sunday. Temperatures last year at those times, hovered around 55 degrees.

The freeze could cost Geske thousands, especially if the farmer is forced to replant his crop.

Seeds alone would cost $35,000, he said. Plus, he said, because of the demand for corn, newly bought seeds wouldn't have the quality or yield potential earlier seeds had.

Gene Stevens, crop production specialist at the University of Missouri-Delta Center, said some bootheel farmers have already dug up corn seeds to see if they'd have to replant the crop. The freeze hit parts of the bootheel the hardest, in part because southeast Missouri corn farmers tend to plant their crops earlier than other state farmers.

"They're wanting to know as soon as they can to see what they should do," Stevens said.

But the situation corn growers are facing could be worse.

The cold weather seems to have hit wheat farmers harder than Missouri's corn growers. 

Farmers planted wheat earlier in the year, and the unusually warm weather leading up to the cold snap aided the crop's growth. That growth also made the crops more vulnerable to the freeze.

"The guys with the wheat, they have a for sure loss," Geske said.

But despite the potential loss, Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, and a farmer himself, said Missouri farmers would rebound.

"Farmers can make up a whole lot of time very quickly with the size of equipment that we have nowadays," Shoemyer said. "I'm certainly not pushing the panic button yet."