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Georgia peach growers happy to see cooler weather

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Cooler winter weather has brought a welcomed chill back to a sweet Georgia crop, says a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension expert.

Georgia's weather began to feel a little more like winter this week with highs in the mid 50s and lows in the 30s, the kind of weather Georgia peaches like this time of year.

Winters are mild in Georgia. But weather over the past month has been near springlike, with highs reaching the 80s in some places and lows at night down only in the high 50s. This has caused some concern.

Peach trees go dormant in winter. During this time, they need chill hours, or hours below 45 degrees, to properly bloom in spring and produce fruit in summer. Depending on the variety, Georgia peaches like to get between 400 and 1,100 chill hours between Oct. 1 and Feb. 15.

"But we're a good bit behind on chill hours as of right now," said Kathy Taylor, a UGA Extension peach horticulturist.

About 90 percent of Georgia's 15,000 acres of peaches grow in the middle of the state. Since Oct. 1, this area has had about 500 chill hours, 160 fewer than at the same time last year. The area needs about 300 more hours just to reach an adequate number for most cultivars grown there, she said.

This concerns growers now, because too few chill hours can hurt fruit set and shape. "But you really won't know until harvest," she said.

"The good news is that the next five weeks are typically our coldest around Georgia," she said.

With about 840 hours left between now and Feb. 15, Taylor predicts 375 of them will be chill hours.

Peaches grown in south Georgia account for about 10 percent of the state's total. They're the first to be harvested in April and the first to hit the fresh-peach market.

This area has had about 300 chill hours, 140 fewer than at the same time last year. If this area can get 300 more hours before Feb. 15, about 60 percent of the varieties grown there should be OK, she said.

Growers also worry about spring frosts. They can damage developing buds or fruits, she said.

"The growers worry about chill hours until Valentine's Day," she said. "Then they worry about frost until Easter."

Predicting how good a peach crop will be is like predicting the stock market, she said. There are indicators, but nothing is certain.

The peach crop last year had plenty of chill hours and good weather. But the crop was less than expected and little disappointing, she said. Georgia growers produced about 35 million pounds, about 70 percent of a good year.

The peach harvest lasts about five months in the summer in Georgia. The crop is worth $25 million to $30 million annually.

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

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