Warm winter and March freeze devastates US peach crops in the south

A worker collects peaches at Pearson Farm in Fort Valley, Georgia. PHOTO: NYTIMES
A worker collects peaches at Pearson Farm in Fort Valley, Georgia. PHOTO: NYTIMES

ATLANTA (NYTIMES) - Peaches are such a part of Georgia's identity that schools, streets and health care plans are named after them. Even the sticker you get when you vote is in the shape of the fruit.

South Carolina, one state over, grows more peaches than Georgia. A giant statue of a peach is its most famous roadside attraction.

For almost all Southerners, a summer without a seemingly endless supply of peaches is unthinkable. But growers say the unthinkable is about to happen in America's cobbler belt. A double punch of unseasonably warm winter weather and an ill-timed freeze has devastated the peach crop.

Production in Georgia might be a quarter of what it was in 2016, when the state produced 86 million pounds of peaches, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In South Carolina, which is second only to California in peach production, the numbers are as bad or worse. As much as 85 to 90 percent of the state's peach crop is gone, according to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. The state's peaches usually bring in about $90 million a year, and their effect on the greater economy is three times that much.

"It's just really, really bad," said Dr Juan Carlos Melgar, an assistant professor of pomology at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. "Historically bad."

Although many growers have crop insurance, it will not replace lost income. And it will not help workers who rely on the peach crop. Peaches provide about 1,500 jobs in South Carolina. Many workers are from Mexico and spend as much as nine months pruning the trees, thinning the orchards and harvesting the crop. Many contracts are being canceled or cut short, and workers are heading home or trying to find other agricultural work, Dr Melgar said.

The problem began with a long stretch of warm weather over the winter, which deprived the trees of chill hours. That is the time a tree needs to be exposed to temperatures colder than 7 degrees Celsius to ensure consistent blooming and plenty of fruit.

Then came a brutal three-day freeze in March. In South Carolina, many trees had blossoms or had already set fruit; that crop was devastated. In Georgia, the trees were so confused by the weather many just never produced fruit at all.

The strange weather combination might save some of the crop. Trees that had worried farmers when they were late to bloom because of the warm winter were not hurt by the freeze. As a result, Georgia will have early peaches, but growers warn the supply will stop by early or mid-July, which is when most people here say peaches begin to taste the best.

It is an odd blessing, said Mr Will McGehee, the sales and marketing manager of Pearson Farm, which grows peaches and pecans in Fort Valley, Georgia, about 100 miles south of Atlanta, in a part of the state with 1.6 million peach trees.

"If you go by what the old-timers say, we should have had nothing," he said. "Let's just say we're looking forward to pecan season."

South Carolina has the opposite problem. The state's early fruit was wiped out, but growers are hopeful about the late-season crop. There just will not be that much of it. Roadside stands and local markets will be stocked with peaches, but there will be little to ship elsewhere.

In Atlanta, grocery stores might appear to have more peaches than usual in the next month or so because shippers are likely to forgo the cost of shipping most of the state's peaches north, which is what they do when the crop is more abundant, said Mr Gary W. Black, Georgia's agriculture commissioner.

This year, Northerners might not miss that Southern fruit at all. The 2017 New England peach crop is looking great, growers there said. Of course, after last year, any peaches look good.

The Northeastern peach crop was pummeled in 2016 when zero-degree temperatures hit orchards so hard some growers still call it the Valentine's Day Massacre. Massachusetts had virtually no peaches, and the New Jersey crop, which usually arrives in markets by July, was down by half.

For Southerners, whose summertime rituals involve eating peaches over the sink, making them into cobblers and ice cream and canning whatever's left, California might offer the only solution. That state is expected to grow about 625,000 tons of peaches. That is up almost 8 per cent over last year, according to Department of Agriculture estimates.

But one would be hard-pressed to find a Southerner who really wants a California peach, even though that state produces half the nation's crop. California fruit cannot compete with fruit born in Southern soil and made sweet with the heat of Southern nights, they argue.