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Georgia peach growers hoping for more chill hours

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Georgia peach trees are on track to get enough chilly winter weather to make a sweet summer crop. But there are some concerns, says a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension expert.

Peach trees go dormant in winter. During this time, they need chill hours (hours below 45 degrees) to properly bloom in spring and produce fruit in summer, says Kathy Taylor, a UGA Extension peach horticulturist. Depending on the variety, trees need between 400 and 1,100 chill hours in Georgia.

About 90 percent of Georgia's 15,000 acres of peaches are grown in middle Georgia. The area has received about 800 chill hours this winter, she said. Peach trees there need about 1,000 chill hours to produce a good crop.

"It looks like we'll get around 150 more chill hours over the next 10 days, based on the forecast," Taylor said. "If that happens, we should get the hours we need for middle Georgia."

Chill hours aren't counted after Feb. 15.

The forecast is less certain for farmers in south Georgia, who grow about 8 percent of the state's peaches. Most varieties there need 500 to 650 chill hours. Right now, the area could use about 100 more hours.

There's a good chance they'll come over the next few weeks. "We should make it," she said. "But by the skin of our teeth."

There's another problem for south Georgia growers. The weather has been springlike, with daytime temperatures reaching well into the 70s in recent weeks.

Some trees are starting to wake from their winter naps about three weeks ahead of normal. Buds are starting to swell and some are even flowering. This puts them at risk. Freezing temperatures can kill these fragile buds.

But each year, farmers routinely thin the buds from each tree, which can hold 3,000 to 7,000 buds. Depending on the variety, they'll leave only 250 to 700 fruits on a tree. This helps the tree direct its resources to growing good-tasting, well-sized peaches.

Most farmers would prefer to thin the crop without Mother Nature's help, she said.

It's hard to say how the harvest will turn out this year, she said. Georgia peach farmers worry each year as winter and spring play tug-of-war with their crop. A freeze in April or early May can damage a crop.

"But at this point," Taylor said, "we're on track to have a pretty good crop."

Georgia's peach harvest starts in late April and runs through September. Early-maturing varieties can yield about 7,000 pounds per acre. Later varieties can yield three times that, she said.

A cool, damp spring hurt Georgia's '05 peach crop, which was about 40 million pounds, about 25 percent less than in '04.

Georgia's peach crop is worth around $35 million annually.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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