A Peachy Outlook for the Season Ahead

Georgia Experts Talk Chill Hours, Drought, and Other Factors for Commercial Peach


Peaches are just getting going in Georgia.  Growers are getting into “peach mode,” and by all accounts, the season seems off to a great start.  Both Dario Chavez, an assistant professor in Peach Research and Extension in the Horticulture Department at the University of Georgia, and Duke Lane, the president of the Georgia Peach Council and part of Genuine Georgia, a company that represents and markets for commercial peach growers of Georgia, gave the season a “thumbs up” as it is, even despite issues with drought and lack of chill hours.  Chavez and Lane agree that the season is right on track.

Totally Chill About a Lack of Chill Hours

If you were paying attention to last year’s peach season in the Southeast, you likely had your ears filled with talk of chill hours and not much else.  The early winter months of last year’s peach season offered long stretches of unseasonably warm weather, and many in the industry were worried the peach trees would not get their required number of chill hours.

This year’s winter has seen some warm weather spells as well, but everyone is a lot less worried than they were last year.  “We’re waiting for chill hours,” Chaves continues, “but right now it’s looking like we’re anticipating a similar situation to last year, where we had a lack of chill but we were able to come out of it and able to still have a good production,” he says.

“Right now, we’re just trying to accumulate some chill hours,” Lane shares, noting that the third week in January brought more unseasonably warm weather, but that it would likely not stick around.  “Last week was abnormally warm, but it’s not a real cause for concern just yet because we have a really cold trend that’s coming in the middle of this week that looks like it’s going to be here for a while.  From a [Georgia] growing standpoint, in January and February, what a tree really needs is consistently cold weather.”

Cooler weather is in the forecast, giving peach trees a chance to put some chill hours in the bank.  In addition to the looming cool weather forecasts, peach growers have other reasons not to be quite as worked up about chill hours as they were last year.  For one, Chavez shares that Georgia’s peach growers “have been doing this for a long time, and they have different management practices that they can use to mitigate some of the chill hour problems.  They were pretty much able to come out of last season with a really good volume.”

Management practices such as pruning in a certain manner can be used again this year in areas where chill hours remain low.  While Chavez maintains that last year there were some varieties that were affected by the lack of chill hours more than others, it looks as if this season will pan out the same way.

Another reason Georgia peach growers aren’t nearly as concerned over chill hours as they were last year is last season was such a good one.  When asked about the parallels between this year and last in terms of warm weather, Lane agrees that the weather patterns have been very similar.  Despite all the worry last year over the lack of chill hours, most Georgia peach growers had a solid production year, and Lane offers an explanation for the anomaly.

“We’ve had a handful of challenges along the way, but we’ve found we have that every year, and what we learned most is we don’t need all the chill hours we once thought we did,” he observes.  “There’s a lot we know about chill and stone fruit, but there is also a lot that is unknown.  Last year was close to a record year for warm weather and we still ended up having a really good peach crop.  So, some things that we thought we knew, we realized we weren’t as clear on after last year.”


Drought Not an Issue

Parts of Georgia and the Southeast have been experiencing drought conditions for the last two years, but it’s not really a concern for most peach growers, according to Lane.  “Most of us are well-irrigated,” he points out.  Just about all the farms are pretty much 100 percent irrigated.  Rainwater is important.  We had some dry weather in August and September, but really, October, November, and January have been particularly wet.  We’ve had more than enough rain.  Drought is not the concern for peach growers that it used to be, but maybe it is for some other crops due to irrigation.”


No Major Pest/Disease Issues

Georgia peach growers aren’t worried about any looming disease or pest threats, either.  “When you deal with fresh produce, you do have pests to manage, but we’re working with better varieties than say, 20 years ago.  They’re just not as prone to some of the pests that they once were.  Not anything that’s of real concern or not manageable,” Lane says.

“The growers do an excellent job of keeping everything at bay,” Chavez adds.  “They have management guides they follow, and normally they have really good control of the different pests and diseases.”

All in all, Georgia peach growers have a lot to be optimistic about.  “We’re making sure we have a good labor force, and we work real hard on the marketing side, branding that ‘sweet Georgia peach’ again,” Lane concludes.  “It’s mostly a positive outlook for the peach business right now.  I feel we’ve got a phenomenal brand, one of the most-recognized in the produce industry with Georgia Peaches, and in the last five years we’ve really capitalized on that.  That’s probably where we’ve found most of our success; it’s an invigorating time.”