Cold winter could mean peachy spring

Frigid winter has peach growers smiling

wcrenshaw@macon.comMarch 11, 2014 

Peach farmers are probably the only people in Middle Georgia who haven’t complained about cold weather this winter.

While dormant, peach trees need a certain number of hours below 45 degrees to produce a good crop, and that has not come easily the past two years.

Last year peaches got about 850 chill hours, just barely enough for most varieties. The previous year it was closer to 800, and that reduced the crop by about 30 percent.

But this year peaches have gotten more than 1,000 hours, a mark passed in early February. That’s plenty for all varieties.

“We are very optimistic we are going to have a good crop,” said Robert Dickey, owner of Dickey Farms in Crawford County.

The biggest challenge now is to get through the next two weeks or so without a hard freeze, which can kill a crop.

Duke Lane Jr., president of Lane Southern Orchards in Peach County, said last year was one of the best crops he has seen in many years. The only problem was that the marginal chill hours meant a later bloom, and the first peaches didn’t come in until May 19.

This year Lane projects the first peaches will come in on May 3, about two weeks earlier. That means Georgia may beat California to the market.

“It’s a good situation for us to be in,” he said.

A key difference this year, Lane said, is that in previous years chill hours mostly came at night, but this year the trees have racked up many chill hours during the day.

Jeff Cook, the county agent for Peach and Taylor counties, said January alone produced 520 chill hours. The cutoff to get the hours needed is mid-February, so the 1,000 hour mark was passed with about two weeks to spare.

A benefit of ample chill hours is that the blooms come more uniformly rather than sporadically. That means the peaches come in at once, which saves growers on picking costs.

The 10-day forecast looks mostly good for peaches. The Wednesday night low will be around freezing, and Thursday night could be worrisome with a 31-degree low expected, but Cook said that shouldn’t hurt if it doesn’t go any lower than that.

Until two years ago, freezing weather had generally been a bigger threat to peaches than low chill hours. A hard freeze in 2007 destroyed most of the crop, costing the jobs of hundreds of migrant workers and significantly impacting the economy in Peach County.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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