If you’re having a hard time finding South Carolina peaches this season, you’re not alone. The state’s early season crop is about 50 percent of what it normally is for this time of year, thanks to this year’s unseasonably warm winter, and late freeze in mid-March, according to experts.
The weather pattern meant that trees bloomed early and then were ravaged by a late season freeze.
“The problem was that the ones that need very low amount of cold bloomed earlier, and so they were in a more advanced stage by mid-March, which was when the freeze hit us, said Juan Carlos Melgar, Assistant Professor of Pomology (fruit cultivation) at Clemson University.
Cold temperatures are not a problem during winter, we need that cold,” he said. “What is not good is when we have a warm fall or warm winter because then flowering is irregular, fruit set is poor.”
The last time this sort of weather pattern hit was in 2007 when we experienced the “Easter Freeze,” Melgar said, when temperatures dipped into the 30s on Easter. But that year, farmers lost nearly 100 percent of both early and late crop production.
This year, Melgar anticipates nearly normal production levels for late season peaches, which run July through early September.
“Starting in mid-July, there is a lot more in the field,” Melgar said. “So very bad at the beginning and, a lot better towards the end.”
The deepest losses are in the area between Columbia and Augusta, Georgia, where the warm weather caused peaches to bloom even earlier. Some farms in that area lost 100 percent of their early crops, Melgar said.
The Upstate will feel the impact as well, though perhaps not as hard. Because of the varied elevation, the weather pattern had a varied effect, causing great losses for some and minimal losses for others.
“So depending on where you were, you were lucky or not,”Melgar said. “I have seen some growers that have full crop here in the Upstate, some that have full crop even the early variety and some that lost nearly everything. It’s just if they were more ahead or behind.”
The western areas fared better than the eastern areas, Melgar said.
With just a 20 percent crop loss, Fishers Orchards is one of “the fortunate ones,” said Mark Fisher, a fourth generation farmer, who co-owns the Greer farm with his father and brother in law. At Fisher, the greatest impact is on their wholesale supply. The limited crop is mainly going to retail outlets like their two store locations in Greer (1000 Locust Hill Road and 504 S. Buncombe Road), and through some roadside stands.
It will likely be hard to find South Carolina peaches in grocery stores for the time being.
“Right now, whatever is in the field is in the roadside markets, and it’s just not going to be in the supermarkets,” Melgar explained. “If it is, it will be more expensive because there are less, and there will be more peaches from California.”
As far as crops go, peaches are particularly delicate, requiring a balance of both cold and warm temperatures to thrive, Melgar said. Peach trees require a certain number of chill hours a season (when temperatures are between 32 and 45 degrees), which allows them to rest. During theses periods, trees are not damaged by cold temperatures.
However, once a tree reaches bloom stage or fruit stage, cold temperatures can be devastating.
"We were lucky enough that the stage our peaches were in, which was in a bloom, it kind of acts as a blanket for them," Fisher explained. "The little pistol, which turns out to be the peach is inside that bloom.
"I have never seen it get as cold as it got this year and us still have peaches. It still kind of makes me scratch my head."
The warm weather in January, when the Upstate saw days in the 70s, caused early season peach crops to begin the bloom stage. So when the freezing temperatures hit in late March, crops were devastated.
Those trees that had not reached blooms yet, however, were fine.
Fisher described peaches another way.
“Everybody always says the peach is the female fruit, so it’s a little bit more delicate” he said. “It’s something you’ll never be able to mechanize the picking aspect of it. Forever and ever it will have to be picked by hand just because of the delicate nature of the peach.”
While peach crops are limited right now, look for good South Carolina peaches come early to mid-July.
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