Slammed by a devastating spring freeze and then a harsh drought, Georgia farmers are bringing this year's peach crop to market. At least they're getting good prices now. And the peaches are extra sweet, says a University of Georgia scientist.
"It's not an easy story to tell," said Kathy Taylor, a peach specialist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Winter brought good weather to Georgia peach orchards and supplied ample chill hours to set the trees up to produce a good crop. Then what peach farmers dread the most happened: Freezing temperatures hit Georgia on Easter weekend, zapping developing fruit and crushing what could have been a good year.
Prices have been strong for the early crop, Taylor said, about 30 percent to 40 percent higher than this time last year. Farmers pack boxes weighing 24 to 25 pounds each for shipping. Smaller peaches are bringing around $10 per box and larger fruit as much as twice that.
The Easter freeze wiped out peach production in South Carolina, another large peach-producing state. "What's left in Georgia is pretty much all there is for the Southeast," she said.
Georgia peaches are famous for their sweetness. This year will help solidify that reputation, she said. Sugar content, also known as the soluble solids, is reported as 50 percent to 75 percent higher this year. "That's very sweet," she said.
An average good-tasting peach contains around 10 percent soluble solids. This year's fruit has 15 percent to 17 percent. The surge in sweetness is due to the drought this spring, she said. The fruit is less diluted by water, concentrating the sugary taste.
Most of Georgia's 15,000 acres of peaches grows in middle Georgia. In Crawford and Taylor counties, growers have found 65 percent of the crop remains for harvest. But in Peach and Macon counties, only 25 percent remains. Overall, the freeze left less than 50 percent of the peaches in middle Georgia, Taylor said.
And the peaches being brought in from orchards are having to be graded closely to make sure quality fruit gets packed, she said.
The freeze left about 70 percent of the crop in south Georgia. But this region accounts for only about 10 percent of the state's production each year.
The peach harvest runs from May to August in Georgia.
Other than keeping track of the peach industry, Taylor also conducts research on peach tree management in Byron, Ga. The freeze severely affected her research orchard, along with other orchards in the area.
But there is a silver lining. "We'll be able to learn more about freeze effects," she said.
For example, she has investigated ways to use girdles around tree trunks to increase the sugar concentration in the fruit. Other than making the fruit taste better, sugar in a peach can also act much like antifreeze in a car, she said.
She plans to compare the fruit on the girdled trees to the fruit on nongirdled trees to see if the girdles helped fruit withstand the freeze better.