Jim Markley’s 1,300 peach trees are usually so laden with fruit this time of year his workers take a Wiffle bat to the branches to thin out the crop, leaving thousands of tiny unripe peaches littering the ground.
This year, driving a golf cart through the rows of trees, he finds a single pale yellow fruit.
“This is the first time ever we’ve lost the entire crop,” said Markley, the owner of CJ Orchards in Rutledge, about an hour east of downtown Atlanta.
Peach farmers across Middle Georgia say their crop has been all but wiped out by an unusually warm winter, which caused fruit development earlier than normal, followed by a brutal cold snap in March that killed the nascent buds.
Apart from a few days of freezing temperatures, January through March was the hottest such period on record in Georgia, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Temperatures statewide averaged 56.4 degrees, more than 6 degrees warmer than the 20th century norm.
Georgia is no longer the country’s top peach-producer, having been surpassed long ago by California. But Georgia’s Peach State label remains, even as a warming climate has made growing peaches and some other fruit here more difficult.
Around 80% of Georgia’s peaches were destroyed by a freeze in 2017. The state’s blueberries have also been nipped by late winter and early spring cold snaps, including one in March 2022 that caused heavy damage on many farms.
Neighboring South Carolina, which now ranks ahead of Georgia as the country’s second largest peach-producing state, also had its peach crop thinned by this year’s freeze.
Top peach-producing states (2021)
|1) California||505,000 tons|
|2) South Carolina||87,400 tons|
|3) Georgia||35,300 tons|
|4) Pennsylvania||19,800 tons|
|5) New Jersey||13,700 tons|
The peaches you find at typical supermarkets often come from other states, or even other countries.
Consumers appear to be paying the price, literally, at the grocery store. U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows the average price for a pound of white peaches is currently $3.88, up from $2.66 a year ago. A pound of yellow peaches will also cost you roughly 50 cents more than it did in 2022.
Although Markley also grows pecans and blueberries, peaches account for more than 70% of his revenue, or about $100,000 a year. Markley sells directly to consumers who drive in from surrounding counties, but this year, the farm stand is closed.
“What’s bad about it is, you lose your customer flow and people forget about you,” Markley said. “The tree-ripe peach is our trademark, and you cannot buy a tree-ripe peach in the supermarket.”
In Middle Georgia, home to the state’s largest peach farms, the effects of the poor crop are expected to ripple through the local economy.
Lawton Pearson, a fifth-generation peach farmer and partner at Pearson Farm near Fort Valley, said in a good year, his farm employs as many as 250 local and seasonal workers combined to help with the harvest. But this year, after 95% of his crop was destroyed, he will only need about 40.
Other large farms draw hundreds more to the area. Without that influx of people, he expects local restaurants and other businesses could suffer.
Pearson estimates farms around Fort Valley normally draw up to 700 workers a year, adding, “For a town of 8,000, it’s kind of a big deal to not have those people spending money in town.”
Lane Southern Orchards, another large producer near Fort Valley, usually employs about 350 seasonal workers, but this year they are down to about 80, said CEO Mark Sanchez.
Lane has nearly 500,000 trees of more than 30 varieties and lost more than 90% of its crop. As a result, Sanchez said the company is prioritizing its own direct sales.
“We have plenty of peaches this year for our store,” he said. “Peaches at the grocery store from us or any other grower in Georgia are going to be hard to find.”
Even the annual Georgia Peach Festival, held starting today and Saturday in Fort Valley and next weekend in nearby Byron, will look slightly different.
Tisa Horton, the festival’s CEO, said the “world’s largest peach cobbler,” an 11-foot-by-5-foot behemoth, will still be served. But a heaping wagon of peaches which typically parades through downtown Fort Valley will only be half full this year. Fewer fresh peaches will be available for sale, too, Horton said.
Tyler Harper, the state’s new Agriculture Commissioner, said in a statement that he’s been engaged with the USDA and Georgia’s congressional delegation about potentially securing disaster relief.
“Georgia peaches are iconic — they’re a symbol of the success of Georgia’s agriculture industry,” Harper said. “We’re going to work around the clock to make sure our peach growers rebound and our peach production is better than ever.”
Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia, said a warming climate means the conditions that ruined this year’s peach crop are not an anomaly.
“Winter is the season that is getting the warmest most quickly,” Knox said. Some farmers have been planting peach varieties that need less time in the cold, otherwise known as “chill hours.” And Knox said as the state continues to see warmer winters, farmers will have to adapt.
But several growers said even the late bloomers that are supposed to be less vulnerable to swings in temperature were lost.
Even though the climate is warming, there is variability from year to year. Knox said next year could be cool and wet due to El Niño, a climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean with far-reaching effects.
“Things look hopefully a little better for next year,” she said.
Ranking Georgia’s most valuable food crops (2022)
|Crop||Annual production value|
|1) Peanuts||$717 million|
|2) Corn||$465 million|
|3) Pecans||$213 million|
|4) Melons||$120 million|
|5) Sweet corn*||$99 million|
|12) Peaches||$34 million|
*Corn and sweet corn are considered two separate crops.
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 https://www.ajc.com/donate/climate/