Editor’s Note: Updated April 6, 2016
Early field reports from peach farmers across South Carolina are optimistic, but growers are still saying prayers and crossing fingers until all chances of frost have passed.
Although the outlook now is a sharp contrast from this time two years ago, it’s too soon not to worry. With peaches, a lot of things can go wrong, and growers are taking the hurdles as they come.
After delays from torrential fall rains, growers immediately began planting new trees, installing irrigation lines and pruning established orchards. But by the end of 2015 they were bracing for the possibility of a no-so-stellar crop, mainly because — long story short — deciduous trees, including peach trees, require a certain amount of “chill hours” to produce flowers and bear fruit. By the end of December, unseasonably warm temperatures had kept the number of chill hours to about 250, about half the chill time normally tallied by then. But colder weather in February helped.
Peach trees drop their leaves in the fall and go into a developmental state known as dormancy. As winter progresses, the trees enter another state called “rest.” Think of it as a bear in hibernation. While in their rest stage, trees cannot grow. Chilling temperatures are necessary for the trees to overcome the period of rest. Budbreak and normal growth occur after a peach tree has stopped hibernating. Peach trees in South Carolina require 800 to 1,000 chill hours, depending on the variety.
Thankfully, winter weather finally arrived in February and with it came enough consecutive days below 45 degrees for the trees to chill.
“Winter definitely came later than expected but once it got here, it came in with a bang,” said Kevin Rogers of Richter Produce. “Since then, we’ve had consistent highs in the 50s and lows in the 30s. We are well beyond the minimum chill hours necessary and look forward to a great peach season.”
Maybe even the best yet, said Andy Rollins, a Clemson University extension agent in the Upstate.
So far, the possibility of a plentiful crop is good but not guaranteed. And even if farmers expect a break from the recent stretch of mediocre years, they’re cautious to avoid jinxing the opportunity. April is crucial. Farmers hope this month won’t bring a late freeze, heavy frost or other conditions that can devastate delicate peach blooms. Unfortunately, that’s happened the last three years.
Despite the late frost last year, however, farmers across South Carolina still produced about 70,000 tons of peaches, second in the nation to California. Georgia finished third.
If all goes as well this year, Chappell Farms, home of “Pat’s Pride” peaches in Barnwell County will begin picking its early varieties by May 10. They are the first of Richter’s three South Carolina peach farms to begin production. McLeod Farms in McBee and Cotton Hope Farms in Monetta should begin peach production around May 15.