Published on 06/17/96

Georgia Peach Crop Less than Expected

In peach country, the old-timers say a bad crop only gets worse.

This year has proven that adage true.

As the peach crop has matured, growers have found that less of their crop survived than experts first thought after a mid-February freeze.

But in two of the top peach-producing counties, University of Georgia Extension Service agents say there will be enough for Georgia peach fans.

"We'll have enough for sale in the area packing houses and at roadside stands," said Peach County Extension Director Mark Collier. "But we won't be shipping many out of the state."

Farther south, Brooks County Extension Director Johnny Whiddon said peach growers in his county expect to ship some peaches, but not many, compared to the usual.

Surprisingly, Collier doesn't expect prices to rise much. "I don't expect the average person buying peaches in Georgia will notice a lot of difference," he said

Peach lovers in other states will have a shorter supply. But California growers will try to take up the slack.

Collier said right after the freeze, he helped farmers estimate the damage to their peaches.

"The fruit was so immature it was hard to tell if it survived the freeze," he said. "But we estimated a 75 percent loss. As we kept looking every week or two, we found we had more freeze damage than we thought."

He estimates the Peach County crop now at 5 percent of normal -- about 4 million pounds, compared to more than 80 million normally.

Brooks County peaches fared only a little better, Whiddon said about 10 percent survived. "We expected about 20 percent to be OK," he said. "But we're the same as other peach growing areas. The more they matured, the more we found damaged."

Another problem peach farmers face is getting the fruit that did survive picked.

"We can sometimes get as much as four bushels of fruit from one tree," Collier said. Some trees this year may have eight or 10 peaches on them. Some have none.

Whiddon and Collier said growers rely on migrant workers to harvest the crop. But with so few peaches on the trees, the workers, who are paid based on the amount they pick, can't afford to spend time searching for fruit.

Some small, protected areas weren't frozen and have close to a full amount of fruit on them still, Collier said. "But those areas are few and far between."

Fortunately, this short crop shouldn't affect the crop next year. Many farmers have stopped applying pesticides to protect fruit from insects. It doesn't make financial sense to put money into an orchard when so little money is coming out.

But they'>re still protecting the trees. "The trees weren't damaged and should recover to produce fruit again," said Collier. "Only the fruit was frozen."

The fruit that remains will have to satisfy Georgia peach lovers and travelers coming through or into the state. Unfortunately for Georgia peach farmers, out-of-state peach lovers will mostly be doing without.