Frozen Peach Trees Help Southeast Orchards Amid Storm

The winter storm that coated Duke Lane Jr.’s 2,600-acre peach orchard in Fort Valley, Georgia, with a layer of ice this week caused more damage to his family’s travel plans than his livelihood.

Frigid weather that grounded flights and cut power to half a million people from the Southeast to New England is keeping dormant peach trees from flowering too early and probably will mean more fruit later this year in Georgia and South Carolina, which accounted for 11 percent of U.S. production in 2012.

“As bad as it looks on the map, this cold weather is something that farmers won’t complain about,” said Lane, 65, whose 36-year-old son, Duke Lane III, got stuck in Philadelphia for two days when his flight to Georgia was canceled, while a niece was stranded in Milwaukee. Both were scheduled to return home last night. “We feel good about our situation.”

After the region’s second major winter storm in two weeks, 0.5 inch (1.3 centimeters) or more of ice was reported across a wide stretch of central Georgia, including Augusta and Marietta, according to the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. More than 100,000 Georgians had lost power by late morning on Feb. 12. The U.S. had its coldest January since 2011, and temperatures were below normal across the Southeast, government weather data show. This week’s storm contributed to more than a dozen deaths, the Associated Press reported.

While about 73 percent of the $631 million U.S. peach crop in 2012 came from California, where farmers this year are struggling with water shortages and the worst drought on record, South Carolina and Georgia ranked second and third, respectively, with combined output of 101,350 tons valued at $104 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pruned Branches

At this time of year, dormant trees have been pruned to better support fruit later in the year, which makes branches strong enough to handle ice or snow without damage, said David Lockwood, a fruit-crop specialist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Cold weather is good for trees because early buds face increased risk of damage from later cold spells, he said.

Before blooming in mid-March, most varieties of peaches grown in Georgia need 650 to 850 “chilling hours,” a measure of periods when the temperature is 32 degrees to 45 degrees Fahrenheit (zero to 7 Celsius), Lockwood said. Trees can endure as low as 15 degrees to 18 degrees without getting serious bud damage during dormancy.

“We’ll have the best year as far as having the most adequate chilling hours,” said Lockwood, who predicted yields may increase as much as 30 percent from last year, with better fruit size and shape. “Last year we were right at the border of not having enough cold.”

South Carolina

In South Carolina, where the USDA estimates the 2012 crop was 70,250 tons valued at $74 million, Betty Belue said the cold spell has been good for her 150-acre family orchard near Boiling Springs.

“This weather is better” for the trees, Belue, 81, said by telephone. “If it gets warm after this week and the trees blossom, and then we have cold weather later, it can be very damaging.”

Georgia, nicknamed the Peach State, had 31,100 tons of utilized output in 2012 valued at $30 million, USDA data show. Central Georgia accounts for 75 percent of production in the state, which grows more blueberries than peaches.

While the cold spell is good for crops now, farmers don’t want it to last too long. When trees are at full bloom starting from March, temperatures below 24 degrees Fahrenheit would kill 90 percent of the buds, according to the University of Tennessee’s Lockwood.

“If this is happening a month from now, it probably will not be good,” said Robert Dickey III, who owns a peach orchard in Musella, Georgia, that his family has farmed since 1898.

(Corrects date in fourth paragraph. Correction was made on Feb. 24.)
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