Houston & Peach

Orchards have enough chill hours, but cold still a worry of peach farmers in midstate

So far so good for the 2009 peach crop.

Middle Georgia orchards have weathered the winter in good fashion, receiving enough chill hours for the buds to get ready to bloom. Even Sunday’s snow wasn’t a problem.

But peach farmers don’t want to see many more nights in the 20s — such as the forecast for overnight Monday and into this morning. Late freezes the past two years struck a serious blow to the midstate peach supply.

“We’re in that time of year when we sit tight and hope we don’t have a late cold snap,” said Frank Funderburk, the extension coordinator for Peach County. “We need a good year to make up for the last two.” Al Pearson of Peach County’s Pearson Farm said he only made 8 percent of a normal crop in 2007 and 45 percent last year.

“We need a good crop this year,” he said. “We had a good winter. We could have used a little more rain to charge the ground. But the rain over the weekend helped. It wasn’t too late.”

He and Robert Dickey III of Dickey Farms in Crawford County said Sunday’s snow did no damage.

“Snow is actually a good thing,” Pearson said. “They say it helps put nitrogen in the ground. The cold-like forecast for Monday night, though, that worries you a bit.”

Funderburk said this winter has been good for peach farmers, with enough rain and chill hours.

To be classified as a chill hour, the temperature must be 45 degrees or colder during the period from Oct. 1 through mid-February. Peach trees, depending on variety and location, need 600 to 1,100 chill hours to prepare their buds to become active, bloom and produce fruit once warm weather arrives.

According to the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ Web site, the Byron experimental station operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 1,043 chill hours as of Wednesday, and the Fort Valley weather station at Funderburk’s office reported 1,077. That’s an improvement over last year when they reported 917 and 888 chill hours, respectively.

An Easter freeze in 2007 wiped out 55 percent to 60 percent of the crop in Peach County, and last year about 50 percent of the crop was lost in an earlier cold snap.

“The losses weren’t as bad in Taylor and Crawford County for some reason,” Funderburk said. “A lot of it has to do with humidity and air movement.”

Once the trees begin to blossom, he said, they can still stand some sub-freezing nights as long as the days are warm.

“But if we get into the low 20s, you get some significant loss, and the mid 20s a little less,” he said.

Dickey, whose family has a peach-packing facility in Musella and has grown peaches in Crawford, Monroe and north Peach counties for four generations, said Dickey Farms wasn’t hurt as badly as some of the farmers a bit south of him the past two years.

“We’ve been very fortunate, but we’d all like to dodge those late freezes this year,” Dickey said. “The weather is a cross you have to bear no matter what type of farming you do. But a great crop would sure be nice this year.”

He said his crews are busy trimming trees and putting out fertilizer, preparing for the growing and picking season.

“We have a couple of orchards with some trees blossoming, but soon it will be time for it really to break loose,” he said.

Funderburk said several early-producing varieties have started to blossom throughout the region.

“If the weather cooperates, we should start having some peaches ready to pick by the second week in May,” he said.

Varieties ripen at different times during the growing season, which continues until mid-August in Middle Georgia, allowing the farmers to keep shipping and selling ripe peaches through the summer.

To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 923-6199, extension 235.