Georgia loses peaches after record warmth

‘We just don’t have a peach crop,’ one Peach State farmer lamented

Workers search for and pick peaches on Lee Dickey’s 350-acre Byron farm. (Audra Melton for The Washington Post)

Lawton Pearson has seen bad years. So has his father. And his father before him.

As a fifth-generation peach farmer at the core of Georgia’s peach-growing region, he knows how fickle growing the state’s signature fruit can be.

Yet after Georgia endured record-breaking warmth this winter, Pearson’s peach harvest was wiped out in a way not seen in decades. His 1,700 acres of peach trees are yielding only about a tenth to a twentieth of what they should have.

“We’ve had some off crops, some bad years,” Pearson said, “but we hadn’t had anything quite like this since 1955.”

This year, he lamented, “we just don’t have a peach crop.”

Anyone who has visited Georgia knows how serious locals take their peaches. They can them, sauté them, grill them; they bake them into cobblers and crisps and crumbles and, of course, eat them fresh. They plaster images of the stone fruit on license plates. On Dec. 31, Atlanta drops a big mechanized one to start off the new year.

But across the state this year, growers are struggling to produce its quintessential crop, with experts projecting losses of 95 percent. As Georgia’s winters get warmer due to human-induced climate change, scientists fear it may get harder to grow peaches in the Peach State.

“We know in Georgia that winter is the season that’s warming the most quickly,” said Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia. “It’s warming about twice as fast as any of the other seasons.”

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Here’s the irony about the peach, that quintessential summertime stone fruit: It needs the cold.

After a peach tree loses its leaves in the fall, it enters dormancy. While resting for the winter, the plant requires a minimum number of “chill hours” — that is, time below 45 degrees Fahrenheit — for the buds to bloom properly in the spring.

But as temperatures rise, “it’s getting harder to get an adequate number of chill hours,” Knox said.

This past winter, chilly weather early in the season gave most Georgia peach trees plenty of time to chill out. But once January rolled around, things started to heat up. The first three months of 2023 were the warmest ever in Georgia since record-keeping began, causing many peach trees to bloom sooner than expected.

“Some of the orchards bloomed almost a month early,” Knox said.

Then disaster struck: A pair of back-to-back freezes in March stunted those early blooms.

At first, the damage didn’t seem too severe to the fruit at Lee Dickey’s 100,000-tree orchard. “They cut good, they looked okay, they looked alive on the tree,” said Dickey, co-owner of Dickey Farms, which has grown peaches since 1897.

Then many of his peaches stopped growing at about the size of a golf ball — or just started dropping off the tree. “Slowly but surely, a good amount of those peaches have abandoned their growth,” said Dickey, who says he has lost 80 to 90 percent of his crop.

That combination of weather events — a warm winter followed by deep freezes — was something Georgia peach farmers didn’t think about in the past.

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“Have that warm winter combined with a typical March freeze, and we’re not in a good spot to grow peaches anymore,” Pearson said. “So that is something that concerns me that was never on my father’s radar.”

Due to lack of volume, Pearson and other farmers hired only a portion of the seasonal workers they usually do. “In a small community like we are, it’s a big hit for the bigger employers to not hire anybody,” he said.

Jeff Cook, a peach agent at the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, said we won’t know the total loss for all Georgia peach growers until mid-August due to variations in damage across our main growing region.

“But conservatively I would say we will be down by 95 percent,” Cook said. As a result, he added, “prices should be a bit higher” this year.

‘We’ll be back next year’

In the short term, growers like Dickey and Pearson fall back on crop insurance as well as sales of pecans and other produce. Going forward, growers can plant peach varieties that need fewer chill hours. But those varieties may bloom early, making them susceptible to frosts like this year’s.

Despite its status as the Peach State, the fruit accounts for a small fraction of Georgia’s agricultural economy. And Georgia is not the nation’s top peach producer. That distinction belongs to California, with South Carolina coming in second.

But farmers who have been growing peaches in Georgia for generations have no plans to quit. “We appreciate the public’s patience as we just have really, really unfortunate situations like this year,” Dickey said. “We’ll be back next year.”

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Knox, the climatologist, says Georgia will remain peach-growing country for the time being. “I don’t think we’re going to lose peaches, at least not in the short term,” she said.

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