Georgia peach growers hope cold winter brings fruitful crop

- Warm winters may mean fewer sweaters to worry about for most Atlantans, but Georgia's peach growers are fearful what high temperatures could mean for one of the state's signature crops.

Warmer weather has led to Georgia farmers this year producing less than a quarter of the number of peaches produced in 2016. And growers are worried that this trend will continue

Peach trees must go dormant to grow fruit, and they need chilly temperatures for that to happen.

So growers track what are called chill hours - the amount of time when it's cold enough for peach trees to get their rest.

There were not enough chill hours last winter.

Will McGehee, the marketing director for the Georgia Peach Council, called it catastrophic.

"We got about 500 hours in the Fort Valley area where most of the peaches are grown, and that proved to be the kiss of death for most varieties," McGehee said.

McGehee's family has been growing peaches in Georgia since 1885. His cousin now owns the farm that's been in the family for five generations.

Now, the state's peach growers are concerned about the possibility that this winter could be another warm one. That could mean there won't be enough chill hours this winter, either.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the climate pattern known as La Niña may form. That typically means a drier and warmer winter in Georgia.

"You're seeing these wild swings from very cold to very warm," McGehee said. "You're seeing a lot less of the talk of the word, 'normal.' Nobody knows really what the new normal is."

There is a chance the colder weather that the peach trees need will break through this winter, said Knox. That's because it's a weak La Niña, meaning other climate patterns might have a stronger effect.

"If you farm, you've got to be optimistic that things will be better than the last year," said Jeff Wainwright, who farms about 7,500 acres of peaches in Taylor County.

"All you can do at this point is hope the good Lord gives you a good cold winter, and if he doesn't you have to plan around it," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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