A worker collects peaches last week at Pearson Farm in Fort Valley. A double-punch of unseasonably warm winter weather and an ill-timed freeze has devastated crops in Georgia and South Carolina. (Maura Friedman/The New York Times)

Georgia peaches: 80 percent of state’s crop lost

It will not be a peachy summer for Georgia growers of the iconic fruit.

Nearly 80 percent of the state’s peach crop was wiped out this year by a combination of an overly warm winter and a hard freeze in early spring, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.

The loss comes after a similarly devastating blow this year to the blueberry crop. All together the loss in both crops could mean a $300 million hit to the state’s farmers, although nearly 80 percent of that comes from blueberries.

The peach situation is actually worse in neighboring South Carolina, where Black said he’s been told not a single commercial peach packing shed will open this year after more than 85 percent of that state’s crop was lost.

What does it mean for peach eaters in the Peach State? Probably only a shorter season. Because supply will be down, farmers will not spend the money to ship their product out of state, meaning greater supply in Georgia stores, although those supplies won’t last nearly as long, Black said.

“We do get questions each year about when can I find a Georgia peach in a local grocery store, and this year it appears we may get fewer of those questions, according to my peach growers,” he said.

It was just a few months ago, Black said, that peach growers were more optimistic.

“When we spoke earlier, everybody was thinking they had about half a crop,” he said.

Production in Georgia might be a quarter of what it was in 2016, when the state produced 86 million pounds of peaches, The New York Times reported. In South Carolina, which is second only to California in peach production, the numbers are as bad or worse.

The Times said as much as 90 percent of the crop is gone in the Palmetto State, where peaches usually bring in about $90 million a year, and their impact on the greater economy is three times that much.

Peaches are finicky. The trees require 850 hours of temperatures below 45 degrees between October and February, Mark Sanchez, the CEO of Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley, told the AJC. This past winter brought only 500 hours of those cooler temperatures, he said.

Without that cool weather, Sanchez said, “you’ll have sporadic bloom, poor quality.”

Sanchez said the huge losses this year put them into “uncharted territory — this is a very, very unusual year.”

Still, he said, farmers understand a crop’s uncertainty.

“We know these years can happen,” he said. “It’s part of the beast. You’re going to have strong years and weak years.”

Robert Dickey grows peaches in Musella. He figures he’s lost 75 percent of his crop.

“We’re picking peaches as we speak and packing them,” said Dickey, who is also a state lawmaker. “But it’s going to be a very short year.”

It’s not the peaches’ fault, he said.

“Quality is good. The peaches are pretty,” Dickey said. “But we just got trees where instead of 500 peaches on it, they have 50 or 100.”

For consumers, the impact will be felt beyond the grocery store. Food distributors and restaurants, too, will have to adjust. Michael Schenck, the owner of the Turnip Truck, is an independent distributor of local food to Atlanta-area restaurants. Peach prices are almost double what they normally are, he said.

“A lot of our chefs are very committed to doing stuff with peaches,” Schenck said. “They’re going to feature it regardless of the prices.”

But, he said, “there might be less on the plate.”


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