After close calls, Middle Georgia peach growers are optimistic

wcrenshaw@macon.comApril 3, 2013 

Just a few days ago midstate growers were fretting their peaches could be lost to freezing temperatures, but now they are expecting a good crop.

Ordinarily a hard freeze in late March would be catastrophic for peaches, but cold temperatures earlier in the month held off the bloom, and winds helped ward off frost when the freeze hit last week.

Robert Dickey, who owns Dickey Farms, said the temperature got down to 28 degrees on the morning of March 27, but it did no real damage to the crop.

While many trees were blooming, he said the blooms were in a stage that was less susceptible to freezing. Also, the temperature didn’t stay low for very long, which was critical.

“All of the conditions kind of came together,” he said. “We got past what could have been a very devastating morning.”

While some blooms were killed, peaches would have to be thinned anyway, so as it turned out nature gave growers some free labor.

The freeze wasn’t the only time growers were nervous about this year’s crop. A mild winter raised concerns that for a second straight year, low chill hours would significantly reduce the crop. However, the hours totaled about 850, which is just enough for most varieties to produce well.

“It was quite a winter,” said Bobby Lane III, director of marketing for Lane Southern Orchards in Peach County. “I think we are sitting on a full crop.”

He said the lack of frost last week during the cold was “the saving grace.”

Jeff Cook, county agent for Peach and Taylor counties, said he believes the losses overall from last week’s cold were minimal.

Cold also can impact blueberries, and Lane said the blueberries they grow were unharmed.

Dickey and Lane said they are expecting the first peaches to come in around mid-May.

Peaches are one of the most significant crops economically for Middle Georgia because they’re labor intensive.

A bad crop can put hundreds of migrant workers out of a job, which impacts local businesses. Also, Lane Southern Orchards’ open packing house is a popular tourist destination that draws more than 200,000 people in a good year.

The biggest loss in recent years was in 2007, when 80 percent of the crop was killed by a freeze that occurred on Easter Sunday. It had a significant negative economic impact on Peach County.

A freeze also damaged the crop significantly the next year, when about half the crop was lost.

Last year, growers survived the freeze threat, but low chill hours reduced the crop by about a third. Chill hours are defined as the number of hours temperatures are below 45 degrees. Without enough chill hours, trees don’t make enough leaves for the photosynthesis needed to produce peaches at a normal size.

On Wednesday, the 10-day forecast showed no chance of freezing, and after that the threat is considered gone.

While the chill hours and freeze threat are the two biggest hurdles each year, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good crop. Drought, too much rain and severe storms, especially hail, can damage the crop.

But right now growers are feeling good about the year.

“We are really optimistic,” Lane said.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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