A dismal year for Georgia’s central and southern peach farmers means money is growing on trees for North Georgia orchards.
Statewide, farmers could lose as much as 80 percent of their peach crop this year because of a March freeze, according to Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.
Not so for Jaemor Farms and other orchards in North Georgia, which are riding high on solid wholesale prices created by the scarcity of Georgia peaches in the market.
The problem for farmers in both Georgia and neighboring South Carolina is cold.
There wasn’t enough of it during the mild winter in most of the South, causing peach trees to bloom earlier than usual. Come March 8, a cold front pushed temperatures into the 20s — freezing and killing most of the young blossoms that would have become peaches in the past few weeks.
Weather-related problems led Dario Chavez, a peach researcher with the University of Georgia Extension, to write that 2017 “is for sure going to be remembered as one of the most difficult years in peach production” in the Southeast.
In North Georgia, Jaemor Farms got the cold weather it needed to push its peach bloom about two weeks later than the rest of the state, sparing them from the March 8 freeze.
“They did bloom earlier than they should have because of the mild (winter),” said farm manager Drew Echols. “We squeaked through the late freeze because we still had a lot of closed blooms on the tree. We were not at full bloom — we (still) lost a lot of flowers.”
But “a lot” doesn’t mean “most.” Jaemor Farms is looking at a 70 percent crop — maybe an 80 percent crop if it’s lucky — while most of the state and South Carolina is looking at 20 to 30 percent yields.
At Ellijay’s B.J. Reece Orchards, co-owner John Reece said he’s looking at what might be “the best crop we’ve ever had.” Reece, unlike farms to the south, plants late peaches that ripen in July — further protecting him from the cold snap that rolled through earlier this year.
“Everybody was scared for a while because a lot of people in South Georgia got hurt on their peaches, but we were fortunate enough to where our apple crop and our peach crop looks good right now,” Reece said.
The orchard sells to wholesalers, but does most of its business as a retail operation at its farm, which has 15 acres of peaches and 130 acres of apple trees.
Farther north at Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, which focuses on the retail and u-pick markets instead of wholesale, manager Dave Lillard said peaches are doing well — as are the rest of his fruits.
“When that real cold — I’m going to say it was 18-19 up here — when that hit us and it went as far as Fort Valley, it really destroyed a lot of their crop,” Lillard said. “The only thing it really affected on us was strawberries.”
Poor crops in the region are creating scarcity in the market for Georgia peaches and, as a result, higher prices for farmers.
“They’re going to be high — they’re already high,” Echols said. “They’re extremely high on the wholesale market.”
Georgia farmers are getting $1 a pound or more for early peaches, according to Jeff Cook, an agent in Middle Georgia for the UGA Extension, when an average price is closer to 65 cents a pound.
Cook said that the state might see earlier competition from California peaches, but that North Georgia growers will be in a good position regardless.
“If you’ve got peaches right now, you should have pretty good prices throughout the year,” he said.
The wholesale boost doesn’t necessarily mean that North Georgians can expect fewer peaches at the market this year — or expect to pay through the nose for them.
“Our retail business is what got us here. We want to take care of our customers,” Echols said. “We’re not going to price them so out of sight that somebody that’s been buying peaches from us for 20 years can’t afford that half-bushel to put up in the freezer this year.”