Weather Wise

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WHEN American insurance companies tot up the destruction caused by El Nino, the largest items on the balance sheet will not be the direct damage caused by wind and storms, but the disruption to agriculture. So far, the oranges in Florida have survived the recent cold, but other crops may not be so fortunate.

With rivers in Georgia spilling over their banks on to fertile farmland last week, the state's watermelon crop is still unplanted.

"The people are already asking are we going to have watermelons by the Fourth of July," the state agriculture commissioner Tommy Irvin said. "That's when you really get to bring in the price. Those prices fall immediately after the Fourth." He was also concerned about the state's Vidalia onions, "sitting over there is a puddle of water trying to fight off disease."

Strawberry farmers have been taking emergency measures against freezing night-time temperatures, spraying their crops with water to encourage a thin layer of ice to form and act as a heat-retaining blanket. Peach trees have suffered, sprouting buds about three weeks early, during a warm spell, then being hit by the low temperatures that followed. So prospects for the summer look less than fruity.

There is, however, one remedy on hand: the wet weather may force some corn farmers to switch to a more hardy crop. As Marie Antoinette might have said: let them eat soybean.