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Cold helps keep fruit orchards dormant during winter months
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Drew Echols pulls back a lightweight blanket Friday covering 5 acres of strawberries at Jaemor Farms. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

While most people welcome unseasonably warm weather in January, farmers prefer the temperatures to remain around freezing.

“Cold weather is a good thing, for peaches in particular,” Hall County Extension Agent Billy Skaggs said.

Skaggs said a certain number of cold hours are required for peaches to flower and produce fruit when the weather warms up. Because this winter has been so frigid, the peach trees have already spent plenty of time in the cold.

“We’ve got more than we’ll need,” Skaggs said.

The next two months will decide the fate of crops like peaches, which take warm, sunny weather as a cue that it’s time to bloom.

“What you don’t want to see is three or four days where it’s 50, 60 degrees and sunny,” said Drew Echols, farm manager at Jaemor Farms in Alto. “Once you hit 1,000 (chill hours), if you’ve got warm days, they’re going start moving.”

Echols said that ideally the weather would stay between 30 and 50 degrees through March to keep peach trees dormant.

“When it does warm up, it’s like a switch,” Echols said.

Once trees have flowered, the delicate blooms can be damaged by early spring frost.

“Those peach trees could flower prematurely,” Skaggs said. “Anytime we have this cold of a winter and then we have an early season warmup ... that’s where the real damage comes into play.”

Skaggs said there are a number of things farmers can do to protect trees once they start blooming and cold weather threatens them.

Larger commercial orchards use irrigation to shield buds from the cold weather. When watered, a thin layer of ice will form and actually insulate the plants.

“Another mechanism some growers use are windmills,” Skaggs said. “The goal there is to keep the air moving so you don’t get cold pockets of air that settle into a block of trees.”

Some will even light hay bales on fire in orchards in an attempt to raise the temperature a few degrees.
“I don’t know how affective it is,” Skaggs said.

Echols said for the last few years, peach crops have been damaged by early spring frost from mid-March to early April.

“Last year, we lost about 40 percent,” Echols said. “In (2007) it was complete crop failure; ’07 was devastating.”

Echols said each year he holds his breath until about mid-March.

“There’s nothing you can do. It’s mother nature,” he said.

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