Hot December puts Georgia’s fruit growers on edge

Credit: Alex Cornelius

Credit: Alex Cornelius

Record-high winter temperatures put blueberry, peach crops at risk

On Alex Cornelius’ nearly 300-acre farm west of Waycross, Georgia, confused blueberry bushes have already started blooming, about two to three weeks earlier than normal. Other varieties, which require longer exposure to cool temperatures, have not received the cold hours they need for a productive crop.

As temperatures soared to near 80 degrees late last month, many Atlantans enjoyed the novelty of spending the holiday season outdoors in T-shirts and shorts, before January’s cold snap kicked in.

But for fruit growers across the state, the warm weather has been nerve-wracking. And with the risk of frost damage lingering, some farmers will be anxiously watching their temperature gauges for many more weeks.

“It gives us great concern because we have a long way to go until Easter, which has historically marked the last cold event for south Georgia,” Cornelius said.

Georgia’s most important fruit crops rely on a delicate balance of warm and cold temperatures delivered at just the right times. Too much warmth early in winter can cause problems, but so can a late-season cold snap.

Many parts of Georgia set new record high temperatures last month, including Atlanta. The period from Dec. 1, 2021 to Jan. 5, 2022 was the second-warmest on record for the city, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center. It was the warmest such period on record for Macon, which hit a record high for Dec. 30 of 83 degrees Fahrenheit, 8 degrees above the previous record.

While Georgia’s other major crops can be affected by extreme temperatures at other times of the year, for fruits especially, winter can make or break a farmer’s crop.

Crops like blueberries, peaches and apples 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 once warmer weather arrives.

Cornelius said some blueberry varieties on his farm have already banked enough chill hours, and the sustained warmth in late December was enough of a signal for the plants to think it was time to bloom. But those flowers will be vulnerable to damage if temperatures drop below freezing later this winter.

On the 1000-acres in middle Georgia where state Rep. Robert Dickey (R-Musella) grows peaches, the abnormally warm temperatures so far this winter are also a cause for concern.

Dickey said that in Musella — where his family has grown peaches since the 1890s — the peach trees in his fields have only gotten about one-third of the chill hours they require. He says there’s still time to catch up, but they’ll need a cold January and February to do it.

“If we don’t get enough cold during the winter, the blossoms won’t develop and the peaches just really won’t make it on the trees,” Dickey said.

Though experts projected that Georgia would likely have a warmer than average winter, it is in keeping with longer term global warming trends. In the U.S., winters are warming faster than any other season due to climate change, according to a recent analysis by the nonprofit organization Climate Central.

“Even though there’s still a lot of year-to-year variation, it is very clear that the warming that we’re seeing in all seasons is caused by the effects of human-induced climate change,” said Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia and the director of the university’s weather network.

Damage to these crops would be harmful to Georgia’s rural agricultural economy. Rankings vary from year to year, but lately Georgia has been among the top three blueberry-producing states in the country. In 2019, Georgia’s blueberry crop was worth more than $220 million, making it one of the state’s most valuable agricultural commodities. Georgia’s peach crop was worth an estimated $72 million that same year, according to report from the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

“Those fruit producers, it’s their one crop of the year, so if they don’t get a good crop, they have to wait until next year,” Knox said.

For now, Cornelius said he’ll just hope that any deep freezes spare his farm.

“Between now and Easter, we may not drop below 31 degrees (Fahrenheit) and we’ll be fine. We’ll just have to see what happens.”