Middle Georgians have been enjoying warm temperatures this winter, but peach growers have not.
Trees are far short of the chill hours they need to produce a full crop. Last year’s crop was off 25 to 30 percent, at least in part because of low chill hours, said Jeff Cook, the county agent for Peach and Taylor counties. Hot temperatures in the spring while the peaches were small also may have hurt the crop.
When trees are not in temperatures below 45 degrees long enough during the dormant stage, peaches can turn out small and malformed. The number of hours needed depends on the variety. About 1,000 hours would cover all varieties grown in the area, while 850 would cover most of them.
This year the chill hours are running even further behind last year. Earlier this week, the monitoring station in Fort Valley showed 470 chill hours, compared to 570 at the same time last year. The cutoff is Feb. 15, and the total for last year in Fort Valley was 686 hours. At best, Cook is expecting a total of about 550 hours this year.
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He can’t remember a year when it was that low. He expects the crop loss this year will be at least as much as last year, and that’s assuming perfect weather conditions the rest of the way. He attributes the low chill hours to a La Nina weather pattern, which causes mild winters.
Robert Dickey, owner of Dickey Farms in Crawford County, said he believes the reduced crop last year was mostly to low chill hours, and he is discouraged that the chill hour total is even worse this year.
“We are very, very concerned,” Dickey said. “It is one of the most historic low chill climates for peaches. It is way below what we need. We don’t know what it’s going to be like this year.”
Last year local growers experimented some with a spray called Dormex that is supposed to help make up for low chill hours. Growers in other parts of the country and in South America have used it for many years, but growers generally haven’t needed it in Middle Georgia. But this year is the third winter in the last five in which low chill hours are expected to impact the crop.
Local growers recently had a meeting with a Dormex representative to learn the best time and method for applying the spray. Cook said he expects it will be used widely in the area this year.
Dickey Farms was spraying it on an orchard last week. Dickey’s son, Lee Dickey, said he expects the majority of the farm’s 1,000 acres of producing trees will get the spray. Only those with a low chill-hour requirement will not get sprayed. The cost is about $40 an acre.
Although they weren’t sure the spray helped on the trees last year, Lee Dickey said he is hopeful the consultation with the Dormex representative will improve results this year.
Cook sprayed experimental tracts with Dormex last year and saw no difference in production from those that weren’t sprayed.
He said growers are trying other techniques as well this year to compensate for low chill hours. One is pruning trees back less to leave more limbs on the trees — and therefore more peaches. The hope there is that with more peaches, there will be more good peaches that can be left on the trees during thinning while the bad ones are removed.
The impact of chill hours is not an exact science, so it’s hard to be sure how the crop might turn out, Cook said.
“We are just holding our breath and waiting to see what happens,” he said.
Although other crops in Middle Georgia have a higher dollar value, peaches might be the most economically important crop because of the labor involved. Peaches employ hundreds of migrant workers, and local businesses have seen losses in bad years.
Between late freezes and low chill hours, peach growers have not had a good year since 2012, Cook said.