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Unseasonable Winter Weather Takes A Bite Out Of Georgia's Peach Crop

Peaches ready for packing and shipping at Lane Packing, a peach farm in Fort Valley, Ga.
Grant Blankenship
Georgia Public Broadcasting
Peaches ready for packing and shipping at Lane Packing, a peach farm in Fort Valley, Ga.

Despite a bad growing season, there were peaches for sale recently at a small stand at the Mulberry Farmer's Market in Macon, Ga. The fruit caught the eye of Linda Marlow, visiting from the West Coast.

"We're from California so we want Georgia peaches," Marlow said with a laugh.

California, by the way, produces more peaches than other state in the country. It isn't like this is a novelty for Marlow.

"Well yeah, but we expect they are going to be better here," Marlow said.

For a lot of people up and down the East Coast, Georgia is synonymous with peaches. Think about it; when have you ever heard someone wax poetic about a California peach?

Turns out, though, Georgia peaches, and Southern peaches in general, are having a really tough year.

Mark Sanchez is the CEO of Lane Packing in Fort Valley, Ga. It's one of the big growers in the four county area smack in the middle of Georgia where peaches come from. His office by the loading dock is in fact in Peach County. He says climate is the secret to Georgia's peach dominance. He says California can't touch Georgia's weather.

"In Georgia we have the cool nights, lot of rainfall, very hot summers," Sanchez said.

That makes a juicy peach. Hot in the summer here? You bet. It's those cool nights that were missing last winter and that's a problem. Sanchez said before peaches bloom in the spring, they need long, uninterrupted stretches of cold in the winter.

"Our desired level is about 850 to 1,000 hours under 45 degrees," Sanchez said. That's like two and a half months of cold nights. "This past winter we had just barely under 500."

That's about one month of cold. Add a two-day March freeze and peach blossoms from here to North Carolina bit the dust. Georgia lost 85 percent of its crop. So is Georgia still the climate sweet spot for peaches?

"Certainly the climate is changing. For whatever reason, we won't get into that," Sanchez said. In fact, the last couple of years have been too warm, he said. "But two years don't make a trend," he added.

Climate data kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, go back much further than that. NOAA statistics put Georgia's average winter temperature at 45 degrees Fahrenheit in 1895. The most recent average, from 2015, puts that at 47 degrees.

Still, even given the terrible season, Sanchez said there are plenty of peaches for Southern markets. Just don't look for them outside the South.

"If you're in Boston in mid to late July looking for Georgia peaches, they'll be hard to find," Sanchez said.

Georgia's peaches will be picked by early July. They usually last until August. Jon Clements, an agricultural extension educator with the University of Massachusetts Amherst said that may not be that big a deal.

"We got a moderate to good peach crop right now going. Which is good for us," Clements said of the Massachusetts peach crop. Clements said that if cold is good for peaches, the problem in Massachusetts is letting the trees get too much of a good thing.

"But it only got to barely below zero this year. So the winter was not a problem," Clements said.

He said that's been the trend for growers there for over a decade. Clements said that means plenty of local fruit for New Englanders. Georgia's peach crop, however, will stay in Georgia.

Back at the farmer's market, Linda Marlow's niece Shannon Perches imagined life in Georgia without local peaches.

"That wouldn't sit well at all. I mean we're in Georgia. We should be eating Georgia peaches,' Perches said.

That's something she can look forward to for a few more weeks.

Copyright 2017 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Corrected: June 30, 2017 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Jon Clements' last name as Clement.
Grant came to public media after a career spent in newspaper photojournalism. As an all platform journalist he seeks to wed the values of public radio storytelling and the best of photojournalism online.