Published on 02/24/97

Winter Peachy So Far, but Fresh Fruit Far from Ready

Can't wait to bite into a fresh, sweet peach? Georgia peach farmers can't wait for you to do that, either.

But the 1997 crop still has a long way to go before it's ready for that first juicy bite.

"Winter temperatures have satisfied the chill requirement on just about every variety of peaches across the state," said Butch Ferree, a fruit crops horticulturist specializing in peaches with the University of Georgia Extension Service. "It's looking good so far."

Peaches require a certain number of hours below 45 degrees to set fruit properly. The number of hours varies with the peach variety.

An early warmup and three major freezes (February 5, March 9 and March 19-20) in 1996 wiped out 95 percent of last year's peach crop.

Peach trees bloom, bud and produce fruit only once each year. Once the tender blooms and buds froze, Ferree said, that was it.

Georgia farmers valued their crop at $3.4 million in 1996, a painful drop from the $29.7 million crop in 1995.

"The 1996 crop loss won't have much effect on the finished 1997 peach crop," he said. "It will cause some extra headaches for the farmers, though."

Ferree said since they didn't produce peaches last season, the trees had an extra store of energy. They'll put that energy towards making more blooms and peaches this year.

In mid-April, farmers have to thin the number of peaches on their trees. They have to pick some of the very young peaches. That allows the remaining fruit to grow to the handful size shoppers like at the markets.

For now, Ferree said, the crop's looking good.

"We've had a few warm periods that have made us nervous," he said. "We sure don't want the crop to bloom and set fruit, and then get hit with freezing temperatures again."

Early spring temperatures in the 80s that last 10 days or more can bring peach trees into bloom. A later freeze into in the 20s or teens can be disastrous.

The average bloom date for peaches in middle Georgia is in mid- March. That's usually just after the last hard freeze that could damage tender peach buds. But some of Georgia's peach-growing areas have already had warm temperatures. That's made the trees lose their cold-hardiness.

Peach County farmers grow nearly half of Georgia's peaches. The trees there are right on track for their chill hours.

"We entered the second week of February with 900-plus hours, and we didn't get them too soon or too fast," said Peach County extension agent Mark Collier. "On average, we're right on what we need."

Collier said farmers in his county are able to stay on schedule with pruning chores, too. And they realize they've got a bigger thinning chore this year.

Farther south, in Brooks County, peach farmers have already reported 50 percent bloom in some major varieties. Farmers there produce about 10 percent of the Georgia crop.

"We'll pretty much just have to wait until the beginning of April before we can get a good indication of how the crop will do this year," Ferree said. "A lot of farmers may have to buy some of those long-lasting, extra-strength heartburn medicines -- we've got about two months to go before we'll know."