Here’s why most peaches are picked and thrown away
With the danger of a freeze behind them, Middle Georgia peach growers are feeling good about their crop.
For the past few years growers have suffered significant losses from either late freeze that kills budding peaches or lack of chill hours over the winter, but both those hurdles have been cleared for this year.
While chill hours weren’t ideal and there was some loss from freezing in early varieties, growers say overall the crop looks promising.
“We’ve got a really good crop of peaches on the trees,” said Will McGehee, sales manager at Pearson Farm in Peach County. “We are as excited this year as we have been in a long time.”
The peach crop is particularly important in Middle Georgia because it’s labor intensive and employs hundreds of people, including migrant workers who come up from Mexico on a temporary work visa during the season. Stores in the area see an impact during a bad year when the workers aren’t here.
In a good year, the crop generates about $50 million in Georgia, and most of that comes from Middle Georgia. Growers produce about 140 million pounds of peaches in a typical year, according to the Peach Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The University of Georgia Extension Service estimates there are about 1.6 million peach trees in Middle Georgia, which makes up about 75 percent of the total in the state.
Even though the first peaches won’t be ready to pick until around mid-May, the workers are already here. With an abundant crop, the task at hand now is thinning. Trees are so loaded with peaches that workers have to go into the orchards and remove the majority, otherwise the peaches wouldn’t grow to a sufficient size.
Al Pearson, owner of Pearson Farm, said a tree would typically have around 2,000 peaches on it, and would need to be thinned to have about 400.
“It takes a long time but it’s real important unless we want to have a big crop of little peaches, and that’s not how you stay in business,” Pearson said.
Although peaches are picked in the spring and summer, the crop is really made over the winter. During the dormant period trees ideally need about 1,000 hours in temperatures below 45 degrees, although most varieties can get by with less. Low chill hours have significantly hurt the crop in recent years.
Jeff Cook, county agent for Peach and Taylor counties and the peach agent for the area, said chill hours were about 800 over the winter. But it was a wet winter, he said, and that helps make up for the lower hours.
“When the trees put out a uniform bloom, that shows us they got enough chill hours,” McGehee said. “The trees are really the ones that tell us we got enough chill hours.”
In addition to the jobs that peaches bring the Middle Georgia, the crop is also responsible for a significant amount of tourism. Pearson Farm, Lane Southern Orchards in Peach County and Dickey Farms in Crawford have packing houses that are open to the public and draw thousands of tourists when the crop is coming in.
Telegraph photographer Jason Vorhees contributed to this report.