Growings On: The Peach State lives up to its name

Roger Gates

Standard Georgia automobile license plates continue to identify the important contribution of the state fruit to the agricultural economy. Designation of the peach as the state fruit was officially established by the legislature in 1995, the same year that peanuts were recognized as the state crop. Official designation of Vidalia onions as the state vegetable had already been completed in 1990.

Commercial peach production was underway in middle Georgia as early as the 1870s. Development and identification of varieties including the Elberta, Georgia Belle and Hiley Belle were instrumental in the early stages of the industry. Fruit that retained appeal after shipment was particularly influential.

There are presently two commercial peach-growing regions in the state. The central region is the largest with about 1.6 million peach trees and 75% of the state's production. The southern region produces about 30 million pounds of peaches annually. Georgia produces about 130 million pounds of peaches annually.

Following two years of unfavorable weather and low yields, prospects for Georgia’s peach farmers improved in 2019.

This year’s yield is expected to be more than twice last year’s, according to Jeff Cook, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources agent for Peach and Taylor counties. The three largest growers in the state, located in middle Georgia, are expected to sell 2.5 million boxes this year, compared to just 1 million in 2018, Cook said.

“We’ve had a big crop,” he said. “Overall, the quality has been good. The quantity has been really good. Everybody’s really happy.”

Peach farmers experienced a near disaster in reduced production during 2017 and 2018 was not much better.

“We had probably the worst crop in 30 years in 2017," said Lee Dickey, who farms 1,000 acres of peach trees. "Last year was fairly challenging as well — we had about half the normal crop. It was refreshing to get some good volume in this year. I would say overall, it was a pretty good crop.”

Mild winter conditions during 2017 led to an 80% loss of the state’s crop. Cook estimates that approximately 70% of those losses were attributed to a lack of chilling hours. An accumulation of cold temperatures, referred to as chill hours, are needed for peaches to produce at potential. Chill hours with temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees are needed for fruit to mature. The chill hour requirement varies for different peach varieties. In Georgia, peach farmers anticipate accumulation of about 1,000 chill hours.

Georgia farmers have thrived this year despite unpredictable weather. Dickey said a late freeze in the spring damaged some of his early varieties. Peach trees bloom in early to mid-March, so late-season freezes can damage crops.

This season, temperatures dipped below freezing for a few nights during bloom, but the overall damage was minimal, said Cook, although the late freeze led to some disease issues, like brown rot.

“The rain and wind and things like that caused some bacterial spot problems that got to be an issue in places and on certain varieties, but for the most part the weather was fine,” Cook said. “It got a little hot and dry there for about three weeks in June, but once we got past that and started to get a few showers and sun, things got back to normal.”

Improved production this year has led to prices of about 75 cents per pound, a little lower than the 80 to 95 cents farmers got the past two years with reduced supplies.

If you are a baker, or are well connected to one, I recommend peach pie! It’s every bit as American (and Georgian) as baseball and ice cream.

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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