Middle Georgia peach crop producing ‘flavorful’ fruit

This year’s cold winter was just right for one of Georgia’s top fruit crops. Its tree roots welcomed the wet spring, but a late freeze just before Easter wasn’t kind to some tender peach buds.

Generally, though, Mother Nature has been cooperative to help produce a great start to the peach season across Middle Georgia.

“I think people are going to be really excited about the quality they are going to see this year and the availability,” said Cynde Dickey, co-owner of Dickey Farms in Musella. “And I think they are going to be very pleased with the overall crop this year.”

Peaches need a certain amount of cold weather as the trees move in and out of dormancy. The amount of cold they need is called “chill hours” -- the number of hours below 45 degrees the tree receives. This year, peach trees got the average number of chill hours needed, Dario Chavez, a University of Georgia scientist, said in a May report by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The winter was wet at times but everything was OK until late March, when “we had that little dip in cold weather,” Dickey said.

“The full moon before Easter is always one of our biggest concerns,” Dickey said. “When (peaches) are first growing and have a tight blossom, the cold won’t hurt them as bad. And then they bloom and the bloom falls away and the little peaches are exposed.”

Then the really cold, prolonged temperatures can kill the peach.

Duke Lane III, director of sales for Lane Southern Orchards in Peach County, said its operation lost 30 percent to 40 percent of its peach crop from that pre-Easter cold snap. Temperatures that dropped into the mid-20s ended up damaging the buds.

“It was a pretty significant loss,” Lane said. “But it’s not a total loss. We’ve got 60 (percent) to 70 percent of a crop, so we’ll have peaches all summer.”

Later in the spring, Mother Nature turned off the faucet and the midstate had a patch of warm, dry weather. Both Dickey Farms and Lane had to irrigate.

Even though the cold weather caused some of the early peach varieties to be a little on the small size, Lane said, the size is improving. And the dryness actually can make the peaches taste better.

“The dry weather has made for some really good eating, flavorful peaches,” Lane said.

Lane Southern Orchards has about 2,400 acres of peaches with about 250,000 trees. It has hired more than 200 people to work the crop this year.

“We are always picking three or four varieties at the same time,” Lane said.

Each variety is ripe for about two weeks, so they overlap to help provide a consistent supply.

Dickey Farms, which has about 1,000 acres of peach trees in Crawford County, is busily picking its early varieties, Carored and Gold Prince and about to begin picking Ruby Prince.

The early varieties are cling or semi-cling peaches -- which means the peach clings to the center pit or stone -- and the later varieties are freestone, she said.

It has hired about 85 people to work in the orchards and the packing house.

The peach season runs from mid-May to mid-August. About 90 percent of the state’s peaches are grown in the Fort Valley area, according to the Georgia Peach Council.

Both Lane and Dickey Farms have retail shops on site with an assortment of farm produce and locally made products for sale, but they also ship peaches to customers.

Even though California is the largest peach producer in the U.S. by far -- 648,000 tons in 2013 compared with 35,250 tons in Georgia -- the drought in the Golden State is not affecting its peach crop, since most orchards there are irrigated. Therefore, Lane said he’s not expecting a higher demand for peaches from Georgia.

“But we are the Peach State,” he said. “There is only one Peach State. They are just growing peaches. We are growing Georgia peaches.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.