This year might be a peach for Georgia fruit farmers.
Coming off of a rough 2016 and 2017 for Georgia peaches, 2018 is looking relatively grand — so far. The chance of a “blackberry winter” descending from the north and frosting out crops remains hanging over North Georgia, but for now the state is flush with infant fruits and rich blossoms.
A cold winter has left the state’s peach crop with plenty of the chill hours — the amount of time spent with cold weather over Georgia — it needs to keep trees from blooming early and exposing them to frost. That is what doomed much of the crop in 2016 and especially in 2017.
In early March 2017, temperatures dropped into the 20s after a warm winter led to early blossoms from peaches. They froze, the fruit never came and some areas of the state lost as much as 80 percent of their crop.
Some high-dollar markets for Georgia peaches like Boston and New York restaurants and groceries went without in 2017, Jaemor Farms owner Drew Echols said last week.
The Echols family farm was one of the few to avoid the frost in 2017 and produce a normal crop — a windfall in a time of rising prices caused by low supply.
It remains to be seen whether prices will stay above average in the face of larger supply after two rough years in Georgia orchards, but the bottom line so far this year is that the Georgia peach crop is looking good, according to the Merritt Melancon at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
“We’re in good shape; we really only need about 900 (chill) hours,” Jeff Cook, UGA Cooperative Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources agent in Peach and Taylor counties, told Melancon in February. “Last year we had less than 500 — we had 493.”
It’s in good shape at Jaemor Farms as well, where orchards of peach trees are sprouting thousands upon thousands of tiny, green peaches.
“We’ve got what I would consider an excellent crop of peaches up here,” Echols said Tuesday, April 3.
The peaches are so full, he said as he reached into a branch and started snapping fingerfuls of little peaches from their branches, that they need to be pruned all the time to get enough room to grow.
“You want them spaced out about six inches apart,” he said.
The fruits will almost double in size every day between now and the May harvest when the first examples start leaving their branches.
At that point, the brakes come off and Jaemor Farms is busy until the end of September or early October, when the peach season comes to a close in North Georgia.
But until spring gets settled, Echols and Co. won’t be sleeping easy.
Blackberry winter still might come, the final blast of cold weather that descends in the full of the blackberry bloom in April. This week’s forecast calls for morning lows in the low to mid-40s.
“That’s what the locals up our way always preach, ‘Watch for blackberry winter and then you feel a little better and easier,’” said Steven Patrick, UGA extension coordinator for Habersham County.
Patrick himself just advises farmers to leave the superstitions behind and look at the 10-day forecast in the middle of April. If it looks good, they’re fine; if not, they’re not.
North Georgia and the state as a whole could avoid a blast this year. It’s feeling very much like spring on the ground in Georgia and in the atmosphere, according to State Climatologist Bill Murphey.
Murphey told The Times this week that the quick succession of cloudy weather, storms and sunshine will continue for the foreseeable future until temperatures start to rise.
“We get these quick-hitters that come across and then a dive in the jet (steam), so we get a cool shot come behind it and then temps moderate, pollen comes back out and then we get another one,” Murphey said. “It’s an active spring transition ... kind of typical for April.”
Lows in the mountains should stick to the high 30s, he said, and in the hills of North Georgia lows should bottom out in the low 40s.
If Georgia avoids the freeze, Hall County will be stuffed full of fruit in the days to come — starting with strawberries.
“We’ll be into some pretty good production by the middle or end of next week, and hopefully it’ll run until the middle of June or first of July,” said Echols, standing in his strawberry field. “That’s the game plan, anyway.”
Berries began trickling into the farm’s Alto shop this week, but it’s been slow going.
The green, unripe berries stuffing the fields need a few days of strong sunshine to get red and ready, Echols said, and the past couple of weeks of overcast skies have not helped.
But the cold winter hasn’t been so bad — on the contrary, putting the farm on ice for a couple of months is exactly what’s needed.
“These trees, the peach trees, they need a certain amount of chill hours and cold weather, but strawberries also need to go dormant, too,” Echols said. “Right now, as we speak going into April, it looks like about the most even (strawberry) crop that we’ve ever had. You’ve got a lot of big berries, a lot of medium-size berries and you’ve still got a lot of blooms out there. That’s all good.”
It’s all leading up to Jaemor’s Strawberry Festival set for May 5 in Alto, the one day where visitors can pick their own strawberries in the fields at Jaemor. The rest of the year, Jaemor hires its own pickers to stock its store and sell to restaurants and groceries around the country.
Jaemor charges by the bucket for the festival, and the cost has yet to be determined. The details, including vendors, times and logistics, are laid out here.
And if you want a solid festival — and good fruit seasons for the rest of the summer — keep your fingers crossed that the weather dries up soon.
“I don’t need a lot of rain. Drier weather makes sweeter berries and sweeter peaches, within reason,” Echols said.