Middle Georgia peach growers are picking the last of their worst crop since the Easter freeze of 2007.
Growers say they lost about 80 percent of their crop due to record low chill hours over the winter. The area had only about 500 hours below 45 degrees during the dormant stage when optimally growers would like to have about 1,000.
Ironically, though, the low chill hours also saved what little crop was produced this year. Because of the low chill, many varieties bloomed late and dodged a freeze in March that would have wiped out the crop in a normal year.
Will McGehee, sales and marketing manager for Pearson Farm in Crawford County, said the last of their peaches will be picked in the coming days. In a good year they would be picking into August. Most other growers are in the same shape, although Dickey Farms in Crawford County expects to be picking into late July.
After the freeze, trees bloomed and those blooms turned into what growers call “buttons,” or small peaches. Because of that growers were still optimistic about the crop around early April, but most of the buttons didn’t grow.
“And that’s how a short crop got even shorter,” McGehee said.
The poor peach crop means the loss of hundreds of jobs, both from migrant workers in the orchards and other associated jobs, including truck drivers and those who work produce stands, said Jeff Cook, the county agent for Peach and Taylor counties.
Growers have even combined efforts to save money. Due to the low crop, Cook said Taylor Orchards hasn’t opened its packing house and instead Lane Southern Orchards is packing Taylor’s peaches.
Robert Dickey, owner of Dickey Farms, said the crop is one of the worst he has ever seen.
“There’s only been a couple of years that I can remember that it’s been this bad,” he said.
For the first time Middle Georgia growers this year extensively used a spray intended to make up for low chill hours, and there is little indication that it did much good. Dickey thought the ineffectiveness of the spray might have been because the hours were so far behind that the spray wasn’t enough to help.
Growers have seen significant crop loss from either low chill hours or a late freeze for the past five years. Despite that, growers remain optimistic about the future.
Al Pearson, owner of Pearson Farms, said this year is one of only three or four “really disastrous” years in his lifetime. He is 67 and grew up in the peach business.
“That’s a pretty good batting average,” he said as he stood by a tree that was supposed to be loaded this time of year but had only one lone branch with peaches. The rows of trees around it had no peaches at all, or only a few.
He said despite the losses in recent years, advances in marketing, technology, techniques and better varieties have actually made the peach business as good as it has ever been.
“I feel better about peaches now than I have in a long time,” he said.
He picked those peaches off the lone branch and carried them in his arms back to the truck.
“That’s the first fuzz I’ve had on my arms all year,” he said.
McGehee cut up a large, juicy peach and distributed tasty slices all around.
“We don’t have many peaches, but the ones we have are really good,” he said.