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Chilly worries: Growers fear Monday frost could destroy apple blossoms, grape buds, baby peaches
Drew Echols talks about the large fans that will move air around the peach groves at Jaemor Farms in case of freezing weather. Moving air is less likely to let frost damage the apple and peach crops. - photo by Tom Reed

It is the kind of weather where a degree or two can mean the difference between a successful year and total ruin.

While you slept, Drew Echols and his father Jarl watched the thermometer. They hoped it would stay away from the freezing mark. More than anything, they hoped winds would keep the chance of frost away from Jaemor Farms.

For the second time this year, the Echols were preparing their six wind machines. The machines are driven by a gas -powered eight-cylinder engine that turns an oscillating propeller, much like an airplane prop. In a couple of minutes, the fan makes a 360 degree circle creating a breeze substantial enough to sway the branches of the peach trees.

"Whenever it gets around 32 or 33 degrees and we see that it is going to get on down, we’ll come out here and crank them (wind machines) before it gets that cold and let the engines get running properly," said Drew Echols. "You want to go ahead and grab that warmer air, even if it’s just a degree or two warmer."

Two weeks ago, Jaemor Farms dodged a bullet when temperatures plummeted below freezing. This time, both apples and peaches are at greater risk because of the stage of development.

Jimmy Echols, the patriarch of the operation, can rattle off bad years and their temperatures from memory. Last year, days of below freezing temperatures on Easter weekend killed almost every peach blossom on the farm.

Steve Gibson, general manager of Habersham Winery and president of the Winegrowers Association of Georgia, is not as worried as he was a year ago.

"The forecast is not as frightening because we saw they were predicting an extended period of freezing temperatures," Gibson said. "You can frost prevent for a short period of time."

Gibson was at one of the company’s vineyards in North Hall County where they planned to use an irrigation system to keep the frost away. At another vineyard in Habersham County, the company planned to use heating devices and fans to keep air circulating over the rows of grapevines.

"Frost is what we worry about this year," he said. "The cold, still clear morning is what scares us the most. If you get clear skies and the wind settles, you can get a damaging frost."

The Easter freeze in 2007 severely affected Georgia’s wine production for 2007.

Gibson said that early season conditions have been good, and growers are anxious to make up for lost production from 2007.

He said varieties of white grapes are the most exposed at the Clarkesville vineyard.

"The reds are not as exposed, but the Merlot is the first to bud out and is the most exposed of the reds," he said.