Peach picking has begun in Georgia and the fruit will begin showing up in local supermarkets. The farmers this year are expecting a very good crop and will deliver fruit to markets through early August.
Photo: LUIS SANCHEZ SATURNO
Photo: LUIS SANCHEZ SATURNO

Georgia peach growers tout the biggest crop in years

Georgia’s peach crop survived temperature swings in the winter and spring, oriental fruit moths and the threat that the coronavirus would slow the arrival of migrant workers.

Now comes the payoff for growers:

“This is probably the biggest peach crop we’ve had in five years,” said Lee Dickey of Dickey Farms in Crawford County.

“I don’t think it’s going to be any kind of record breaker,” said Dickey, who grows about 100,000 trees capable of yielding 7 million pounds of the fruit. “But, coming off the last three or four years, it’s looking like it’s going to be a great crop.”

Unlike Georgia vegetable farmers, who lost about half their early spring sales when big buyers like restaurants and schools closed due to the coronavirus, peach growers are not facing supply chain issues. Almost everything they produce goes to U.S. stores or roadside stands.

Early peach varieties are already on their way to market, and, though not the cream of the crop, they are a tasty tease to what’s to come.

“The big peaches that Georgia is known for in June and July are going to be really nice,” Dickey predicted.

The state’s $50 million annual peach crop continues to be a point of pride in Georgia’s $13 billion agri-business industry. Still, it’s not the farm behemoth it once was. California and South Carolina passed the state in peach production years ago. Some far-south Georgia counties that used to be peach production leaders, like Brooks County on the Florida border, have seen acreage of trees shrink because of weather issues.

Irvin Lawson of Lawson Peaches in Brooks County has reduced his acreage of peach trees from 400 to about 100 in recent years because climate change has warmed winter temperatures on his farm. That makes it hard for the trees to get enough hours of temperatures below 45 degrees — they need that chill time to bloom and set fruit.

“One week it’s cold. And the next week it’s almost like spring,” he said. “It tricks these peach trees. They’ll start blooming in early to middle February.”

Then a cold snap will take the blooms. The county used to have 10 or 12 packing sheds in the 1980s that would ship to markets, he said. Now, not one is running. Everything he grows he sells locally.

“They four-laned the highway and there’s a lot of traffic coming through now,” he said. “From what we are seeing, people like to stop by and buy peaches, blueberries, peach lemonade and ice cream. The retail side of it has escalated with us.”

These days, most Georgia peaches that are shipped out of state as far as Texas and eastern Canada come from just five counties west of Macon.

State agricultural commissioner Gary Black stepped in this year to help Georgia’s troubled vegetable farmers by creating large, drive-through pop-up markets where boxes of produce are sold. He also invited the peach growers.

The market held in Cobb County last Saturday saw nearly 2,800 orders placed totaling $187,000 in sales, said Julie McPeake from the state Department of Agriculture.

Dickey sent nearly 1,000 boxes of peaches to the market, which opened at 10 a.m., and they were gone by 11 a.m.

“I believe they could have sold twice that,” he said. “That was awesome. I was blown away.”

The peach season will continue until early August, said Jeff Cook the Agricultural Extension agent for Peach and Taylor counties.

“We got plenty of fruit, and from what growers say, demand is still good. Even the early peaches so far are quality and taste really good,” he said.

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