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Georgia's peaches need to chill out
Predicted warmer winter worries some of state’s fruit growers
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Jaemor Farms co-owner Jarl Echols checks blooms on peach trees on March 21, 2017 at his Alto farm. A projected warm winter may hurt the next harvest for Georgia's peach growers. - photo by Scott Rogers

Warm winters have been devastating for Georgia’s peach crop in years past — and there are fears that this winter could be another one.

Georgia growers produced less than a quarter of the peaches in 2017 than they did last year due to the warm weather, WABE Radio reported. Will McGehee, the marketing director for the Georgia Peach Council, called it catastrophic.

Peach trees must go dormant to grow fruit, and they need chilly temperatures for that to happen.

So growers track what are called chill hours — the amount of time when it’s cold enough for peach trees to get their rest.

There were not enough chill hours in some places in the state last winter.

“We got about 500 hours in the Fort Valley area where most of the peaches are grown, and that proved to be the kiss of death for most varieties,” McGehee said.

McGehee’s family has been growing peaches in Georgia since 1885. His cousin now owns the farm that’s been in the family for five generations.

Now, the state’s peach growers are concerned about the possibility that this winter could be another warm one. That could mean there won’t be enough chill hours this winter, either.

“It is concerning,” said Drew Echols, farm manager at Jaemor Farms, a longtime peach grower off Ga. 365 in Lula.

“We need winter (weather). Another mild winter will pose more challenges for everybody all over the Southeast.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the climate pattern known as La Niña may form. That typically means a drier and warmer winter in Georgia.

“You’re seeing these wild swings from very cold to very warm,” said McGehee. “You’re seeing a lot less of the talk of the word, ‘normal.’ Nobody knows really what the new normal is.”

Echols is skeptical of the long-range forecasts.

He said that if 2017 taught him anything, “as far as weather goes, I won’t believe it until I see it. It’s been the most inconsistent year on weather that I could ever think of.“

From cold snaps to drenching rains, early 2017 presented more than a few challenges for Jaemor Farms. “It’s been a roller coaster if there’s ever been one,” Echols said in a May interview.

“If you farm, you’ve got to be optimistic that things will be better than the last year,” said Jeff Wainwright, who farms about 7,500 acres of peaches in Taylor County.

“All you can do at this point is hope the good Lord gives you a good cold winter, and if he doesn’t you have to plan around it,” he said.

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