Published on 03/11/96

It's Wait-and-See for Georgia Peaches

The annual countdown to fresh, sweet, rosy peaches is on. But how much of the Georgia peach crop survived last month's deep freeze?

"When you look at a crop that produces 10 times the number of flowers it can set fruit for, you never know," said Mark Collier, Peach County director of the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"We won't know everything for a good long time," Collier said.

Cold weather is required to precondition peaches. But this year, February temperatures hit 8 degrees in the middle Georgia peach belt after a warm spell had led many peach varieties to bloom.

"In some cases the weather was a hindrance to the crop, but in others it wasn't," Collier said. "Because different varieties bloom at different times and in different places, it's hard to assess the damage to the entire crop."

In Brooks County, on the Georgia-Florida line, the news is about the same.

County Extension Director Johnny Widdon said one small orchard in the county suffered serious damage, losing 75-80 percent of their crop.

"Florida Kings and Florida Dawn varieties are the earliest varieties we grow here. They got hit pretty hard," Widdon said. "We need to give it a little time to let the damaged blooms fall off and see what comes out."

Blooms that are just swelling when a freeze covers an orchard can suffer damage inside the bud that won't show for several days.

"We have some of the blooms that are just opening and others are full open," Widdon said. "You have to wait for it to open to really assess the damage.

"You also have to consider that cold weather could kill many of these early flowers and we could still have a full peach crop," Collier said, "because peach trees produce so many more flowers than are needed for the fruit."

Collier said the extent of cold damage depends on many factors, including temperature, wind or the stage of flowering or fruiting.

"It even depends whether the trees are at the top or the bottom of the hill," he said.

Some varieties may suffer losses in quantity or quality due to the recent freeze. But Collier said Georgia peaches aren't out of danger yet.

"Peaches are pretty susceptible to cold damage," Collier said. "We are more worried about what kind of weather is yet to come than the damage we have had so far.

"When it's not yet Easter and the peach trees are blooming, we get a little nervous," he said. "We haven't reached our last frost date yet."

The last normal frost date for Peach County, the state's largest peach-producing county with a $25 million crop, is between March 15 and March 20.

Peaches are big business in Brooks County, too. It's the state's second-largest peach-growing county.

"Now that we will have small peaches coming, the cold weather could do more damage," Widdon said. Georgia ranks third in the nation in peach production behind South Carolina and California. But it's still the Peach State.

And in middle Georgia, where more than 80 percent of the state's peach crop is grown, they're just waiting for Easter.

"Nobody feels like the peaches are out of danger until after Easter," Collier said.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.