Published on 06/03/98

Peaches Clobbered Again, but '98 Crop Recovering

So far, this year's peach crop is -- "excuse the expression - the pits," said Mark Collier, a University of Georgia county extension agent in Peach County. "What we're picking now is about a half a crop."

Farther south in Brooks County, Johnny Whiddon agrees. "It's not looking good down here, either," said Whiddon, also an extension agent. "Not now, and not later this season."

Brooks County is second only to Peach County in Georgia peach production.

Collier said farmers in Peach County, in central Georgia, have a later-season crop to look forward to. Early-season peaches, those coming in now, were hit hard by a March freeze. But the later peaches, those due to ripen in mid-June and later, escaped damage.

Georgia peach lovers are getting all they want, Collier said, even with the small early-season crop. "Our growers and packers have peaches for local sales," he said. "They just don't have enough to ship up the eastern U.S. coast as usual."

Whiddon said even the mid- and late-season peaches aren't looking good in Brooks County. Two events damaged peaches and trees this year: the March freeze and a hailstorm in late April.

The freeze damaged the early peaches that had already set buds, he said. Then hail damaged or knocked off the young peaches that were due to ripen in June.

By May 23, Georgia farmers had shipped only 1.6 million pounds of peaches, said Bill Mizelle, an economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"Last year by May 23, we'd shipped more than 12.5 million pounds," Mizelle said. "And though prices to farmers are about double this year over last, I'm sure they'd rather have a full peach crop with lower prices than the current situation."

Collier said wholesale prices are a little high, "but you expect that when supplies are short. But again, in central Georgia, that's temporary. And shoppers should notice little change in grocery store prices."

Mizelle said Georgia peach farmers have been on a roller coaster in the past few years. A harsh freeze wiped out the '96 crop. Then farmers got a good crop in '97. Now they're facing an odd crop this year.

"It seems we go from boom to bust," he said. "Last year was about as close to 'normal' as we get, so it's a good comparison year."

The Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service reports as of May 25, 51 percent of the peach crop is "poor or very poor." Collier said that's a matter of quantity, not quality.

"What we have may be a little small in some cases because of the lack of rain, although the fruit I've seen are sized quite well. And if drought makes peaches smaller, it makes them sweeter, too," he said.

Smaller peaches contain proportionally more sugar, he explained. "There's more water to dilute the sugar in larger fruit."