Here’s why peaches, in the Peach State, might be hard to find this year

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

March freezes on the heels of a warm winter contributed to heavy losses

Just weeks ago, many of the trees on Lawton Pearson’s farm 30 miles southwest of Macon were loaded with quarter-sized fruit and pink flowers, early signs that a plentiful crop of Georgia’s famed peaches was on the way.

Now, most of those same tiny peaches and blooms are rotting off the branches and falling to the ground, Pearson said.

The culprit? An exceptionally warm winter followed by several days of freezing temperatures this month, which Georgia peach farmers fear inflicted a brutal, one-two punch that may have wiped out much of their crop.

Farmers say it could be weeks before the full extent of the damage comes into view. But early estimates indicate 60% or more of the state’s peach crop may have been destroyed by the recent weather whiplash, according to Dario Chavez, an associate professor and peach specialist based at the University of Georgia’s Griffin campus.

“We’ll know in probably two weeks exactly what we have,” said Pearson, a fifth-generation peach farmer and a partner at Pearson Farm near Fort Valley. “But right now, the suspicion is that we were hurt from both sides — warm weather and four cold days in March.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Big crop losses in Georgia and neighboring South Carolina could mean more peaches from California will be in the produce aisles than local shoppers are accustomed to, and it could mean peaches are a bit pricier this summer.

Scientists say human-caused climate change is making Georgia’s winters warmer and contributing to more extreme temperature swings.

This year’s winter whipsaw triggered the latest in a string of painful crop losses that have hit Georgia’s most profitable fruit crops in recent years. Around 80% of Georgia’s peaches fell victim to a freeze in 2017. The state’s blueberries have also been thinned by several late winter and early spring cold snaps, including one in March 2022 that caused heavy damage on many farms.

Some Georgia blueberry farmers say they also fear damage to this year’s crop.

Lack of chill bedevils plants

The root of the problems now facing Georgia’s peach farmers can be traced to this past winter, which federal data shows was one of the hottest the state has experienced in the last 129 years of record-keeping.

Crops like peaches and blueberries need a healthy dose of cold weather to enter dormancy, a critical step that prepares the plants to bear fruit when spring arrives. The plants must hit their “chill hour” requirements — hours spent in temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit — to be able to sprout healthy buds when warmer weather arrives.

Even considering the brutal blast of Arctic cold that drifted south around Christmas, the months from December 2022 to February 2023 were the sixth-hottest such period in Georgia since 1896.

Pearson’s peaches only got about 730 chill hours this winter, well below the 1,100 to 1,200 hours he said his farm has averaged for much of the past 50 years.

This past February was also the second-hottest such period on record for the state, with temperatures for the month averaging 58.2 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s nearly 10 degrees above what was considered “normal” in February last century.

That warmth pushed the peaches to advance in their development, putting them at greater risk when temperatures around Macon dipped below freezing on March 15 and 16. Four days later, overnight lows again fell into the 20s.

Lee Dickey, a co-owner of Dickey Farms in Musella, said his earlier peaches, which generally require less time in the cold and had already bloomed, were hit hardest. He estimates at least 50% of his crop was lost to the freezes, but is hopeful that later developing varieties will still produce a decent yield.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

South Carolina, which now ranks ahead of Georgia as the country’s second-largest peach producing state, also sustained damage to its crop. However, it could be weeks before the scale of the losses there comes into view, said Gregory Reighard, professor of horticulture at Clemson University.

Georgia’s blueberries, which are now the state’s most valuable fruit crop, didn’t escape the freezes entirely unscathed either. Don Starrett of BluStarr Farms near Augusta said he thinks at least half of his crop fell victim to the cold.

“I was thinking, ‘Man, if we can just escape those freezing temperatures, I think we’ll have a record crop’,” Starrett said. “But temperatures in the mid-20s are just too cold for those berries to survive.”

Fortunately, larger farms farther south in the heart of Georgia blueberry country, where temperatures didn’t get quite as cold, appear to have fared better, UGA experts say.

‘Everything is more vulnerable’

Human activity is warming the planet and Georgia is no exception. Average temperatures in the state have climbed by roughly 1.44 degrees since the start of the 20th century.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The warming trend is even more pronounced in the winter months, said Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at UGA. As the climate continues to change, growers across the state are likely to continue to face challenges, she said.

“It puts us in a position to have the growing season start earlier,” Knox said. “But then it means everything is more vulnerable to a frost that isn’t necessarily later than the long-term average, but it is later in the growing stages of the crop.”

Peach growers and UGA experts say the industry is already trying to adapt by cultivating new varieties, including those that require less time in the cold and others that need more heat to force bloom.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

As for this season, both Pearson and Dickey expect they will still have a crop. It’ll just be later than normal and consumers may have to hunt for their fix of Georgia peaches.

“I think folks are just going to have to be patient this year and be on the lookout for local vendors and farmers markets,” Dickey said. “And when they do come, be sure to snatch them up.”

A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at