Unseasonable Winter Weather Takes A Bite Out Of Georgia's Peach Crop

Jul 1, 2017
Originally published on July 6, 2017 12:50 pm

Despite a bad growing season, there were peaches for sale recently at a small stand at the Mulberry Farmer's Market in Macon, Ga. The fruit caught the eye of Linda Marlow, visiting from the West Coast.

"We're from California so we want Georgia peaches," Marlow said with a laugh.

California, by the way, produces more peaches than other state in the country. It isn't like this is a novelty for Marlow.

"Well yeah, but we expect they are going to be better here," Marlow said.

For a lot of people up and down the East Coast, Georgia is synonymous with peaches. Think about it; when have you ever heard someone wax poetic about a California peach?

Turns out, though, Georgia peaches, and Southern peaches in general, are having a really tough year.

Mark Sanchez is the CEO of Lane Packing in Fort Valley, Ga. It's one of the big growers in the four county area smack in the middle of Georgia where peaches come from. His office by the loading dock is in fact in Peach County. He says climate is the secret to Georgia's peach dominance. He says California can't touch Georgia's weather.

"In Georgia we have the cool nights, lot of rainfall, very hot summers," Sanchez said.

That makes a juicy peach. Hot in the summer here? You bet. It's those cool nights that were missing last winter and that's a problem. Sanchez said before peaches bloom in the spring, they need long, uninterrupted stretches of cold in the winter.

"Our desired level is about 850 to 1,000 hours under 45 degrees," Sanchez said. That's like two and a half months of cold nights. "This past winter we had just barely under 500."

That's about one month of cold. Add a two-day March freeze and peach blossoms from here to North Carolina bit the dust. Georgia lost 85 percent of its crop. So is Georgia still the climate sweet spot for peaches?

"Certainly the climate is changing. For whatever reason, we won't get into that," Sanchez said. In fact, the last couple of years have been too warm, he said. "But two years don't make a trend," he added.

Climate data kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, go back much further than that. NOAA statistics put Georgia's average winter temperature at 45 degrees Fahrenheit in 1895. The most recent average, from 2015, puts that at 47 degrees.

Still, even given the terrible season, Sanchez said there are plenty of peaches for Southern markets. Just don't look for them outside the South.

"If you're in Boston in mid to late July looking for Georgia peaches, they'll be hard to find," Sanchez said.

Georgia's peaches will be picked by early July. They usually last until August. Jon Clements, an agricultural extension educator with the University of Massachusetts Amherst said that may not be that big a deal.

"We got a moderate to good peach crop right now going. Which is good for us," Clements said of the Massachusetts peach crop. Clements said that if cold is good for peaches, the problem in Massachusetts is letting the trees get too much of a good thing.

"But it only got to barely below zero this year. So the winter was not a problem," Clements said.

He said that's been the trend for growers there for over a decade. Clements said that means plenty of local fruit for New Englanders. Georgia's peach crop, however, will stay in Georgia.

Back at the farmer's market, Linda Marlow's niece Shannon Perches imagined life in Georgia without local peaches.

"That wouldn't sit well at all. I mean we're in Georgia. We should be eating Georgia peaches,' Perches said.

That's something she can look forward to for a few more weeks.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Summer's here, of course, that means fresh peaches. When it comes to peaches, lots of people think of Georgia. But Georgia peaches are having a tough year. The state is missing something like 85 percent of its usual crop. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Grant Blankenship explains.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: There are peaches for sale within sight of the ornate fountain at the center of the park that's home to Macon, Georgia's weekly farmer's market. And they've caught the eye of Linda Marlow and her sister.

LINDA MARLOW: Well, we're from California, so we want Georgia peaches.

BLANKENSHIP: California, by the way, produces more peaches than any other state in the country. So it's not like the fruit is a novelty.

MARLOW: Well, yeah, but we expect they're going to be better here.

BLANKENSHIP: Why is that?

MARLOW: Because you're famous for it.

BLANKENSHIP: Right. I mean, who gets excited about a California peach? Mark Sanchez says there's a one word reason.

MARK SANCHEZ: The climate.

BLANKENSHIP: Sanchez is the CEO of Lane Packing. It's one of the big growers in the four-county area smack in the middle of Georgia where peaches come from. His office by the loading dock is, in fact, in Peach County. He says California can't touch Georgia's weather.

SANCHEZ: In Georgia, we have the cool nights, a lot of rainfall, very hot summers.

BLANKENSHIP: That makes a juicy peach. Hot in the summer here? Well, you bet. It's those cool nights that were missing last winter, and that's a problem. Sanchez says before peaches bloom in the spring, they need long, uninterrupted stretches of cold in the winter.

SANCHEZ: Our desired level is about 850 to 1,000 hours under 45 degrees.

BLANKENSHIP: That's like two and a half months of cold nights.

SANCHEZ: This past winter, we had just barely 500.

BLANKENSHIP: So only one month of cold. Add a two-day March freeze, and peach blossoms from here to North Carolina bit the dust. So about that climate...

SANCHEZ: Certainly, the climate is changing for whatever reason. We won't get into that. But the last couple of years been pretty warm. Two years don't make a trend.

BLANKENSHIP: Climate data kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, goes back much farther. NOAA data puts Georgia's average winter temperature at 45 degrees Fahrenheit in 1895. The most recent average in 2015 puts that at 47 degrees. Still, even given the terrible season, Sanchez says there are plenty of peaches for southern markets. But...

SANCHEZ: If you're in Boston in the mid to late July looking for Georgia peaches, it'll be hard to find.

BLANKENSHIP: George's peaches will be picked by early July. They usually last until August. Jon Clement says that may not be a big deal.

JON CLEMENT: We got a moderate to good peach crop right now going, which is good for us.

BLANKENSHIP: Clement is an agricultural extension educator with the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He specializes in tree fruits like peaches. There, it can get too cold.

CLEMENT: But it only got just barely below zero this year, so the winter was not a problem.

BLANKENSHIP: That's been the trend for growers there for over a decade. Clement says that means plenty of local fruit for New Englanders. Georgia's peach crop will stay in Georgia.

Back at the farmer's market, Linda Marlow's niece, Shannon Perches, imagines life in Georgia without local peaches.

SHANNON PERCHES: That wouldn't sit well at all. I'm in Georgia. I should be eating Georgia peaches.

BLANKENSHIP: For a few more weeks, that's something she can look forward to. For NPR News, I'm Graham Blankenship in Macon, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.