Although the start of peach season will be slow, Middle Georgia growers are expecting a bumper crop this summer.
After getting plentiful chill hours this winter for the first time in three years, growers have emerged from the spring freeze threat with the crop largely intact.
A couple of freezes in early March killed a large portion of the early varieties that were already blooming, said Jeff Cook, the county agent for Peach and Taylor counties and the peach agent for the area, but the rest of the crop that wasn't blooming during the freezes is in good shape.
He estimated about a 20 percent overall crop loss from the freezes, but that would be a lot better than the 80 percent loss from freeze and low chill hours in last year's crop.
"We are way better off than we were last year," Cook said. "We will have a pile more peaches than we had last year. Everybody is optimistic."
That will mean hundreds of jobs this summer for migrant workers, which affects local businesses — and likely lower prices on peaches for consumers.
With one more week of cold weather in February, growers could have been looking at a full crop, Cook said. Temperatures had been low most of the winter, running up about 950 chill hours, or hours below 45 degrees. That was enough for all varieties. But it started to warm in February, and that caused an early bloom. Had cold weather continued a bit longer, the bloom would have held off and the early varieties would have survived the freezing temperatures.
The first peaches will be harvested around mid-May as usual, but that will be a light crop until about June, with July and August looking especially good.
"Overall, we've got a good crop," said Robert Dickey, owner of Dickey Farms in Crawford County. "We will have a bumper crop in July and August."
Labor on peach farms is largely provided by migrant workers from Mexico who come up on H-2A temporary work visas. Mark Sanchez, the CEO of Lane Southern Orchards, said about 150 H-2A workers will be coming up this year to work for Lane, compared to about 100 last year. The workers make $10.50 an hour.
The H-2A program, designed to help provide labor for agriculture, has not been a target of President Donald Trump's immigration reform efforts.
In a good year, the peach crop in Georgia is worth about $50 million, Cook said. Peach, Crawford, Taylor, Macon and Meriwether counties account for about 90 percent of the state's crop.
Although Georgia is known as the Peach State, peaches do not typically rank high in crop values in Georgia. Blueberries and pecans, as well as many row crops, timber and broiler chickens generate far more income than peaches, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture's 2017 farm report.
But peaches are a more labor intensive crop, which raises its economic importance because of the jobs it provides. Businesses in Fort Valley and elsewhere in peach growing areas have suffered during years of poor crops due to the loss of migrant customers. Associated workers such as truck drivers and those who run peach stand sales are also impacted.