Originally created 03/10/01

Fruit farmers play waiting game



JOHNSTON - The gambling started a little too soon for Larry Yonce this year, but the Johnston peach grower isn't folding just yet.

He says it's still anybody's game despite a potentially damaging frost after fruit trees had started to flower. But give Mr. Yonce about 10 days and he'll know who's in it for the long haul. That's when farmers along the Ridge should find out what damage - if any - Tuesday's frost, and temperatures that lingered in the low 30s that night and the night before, did to their crop. The thermometer dropped as much as 6 degrees in some places.

For now, they are giving themselves some wiggle room by predicting 2 percent to 90 percent loss on the Ridge - a section of Aiken, Saluda and Edgefield counties that grows more peaches than the entire Peach State of Georgia and 60 percent of the crop in South Carolina.

"Times like these are really what get our adrenalin flowing," said Mr. Yonce, a third-generation farmer who grows 1,500 acres of peaches with his brother, Sonny. Their father, now 81, is retired, and leaves the worrying to his boys.

Unusually warm weather and several 70-degree days brought trees to an early bloom this year. Many of them started showing their colors the last week of February, about 15 to 20 days too early. Then came the sub-freezing temperatures.

"This is like playing a sporting event. You never want to get behind," Mr. Yonce said. "But right now the score isn't in our favor. Mother Nature has the upper hand."

Even so, Greg Henderson, a Clemson University Extension Agent, says farmers should make a comeback. "We're confident the weather will be kind to us," he said.

Which means no more freezes, which are always a possibility until the first of May, Mr. Younce said.

"Until then, it's a nail-biter," he said.

Normally, trees in full bloom can withstand 28-degree weather, but not when it goes from hot to cold so quickly. When that happens, the peach doesn't have time to kick in its natural "anti-freeze" enzymes. Once it does freeze, the fruit needs 48 hours to "recondition" itself. But the peaches only got 36 hours this time before a second freeze.

But a little natural thinning can be good, Mr. Yonce said. It keeps workers from having to pluck extra blooms for "breathing room." Too many blossoms in a cluster means small, knotty peaches that have no room to grow, and those peaches don't sell. Thinning blossoms leads to larger fruit.

At this point it's anybody's guess whether this year's freeze helped or hurt.

"These things happen," Mr. Yonce said. "It's like playing poker or rolling dice. You can win big or lose even bigger."

And Mother Nature has been nasty for the past five years, but she let up long enough in 2000 to help most farmers to above-average crop yields. Last year, sales hit $28.6 million, according to state agriculture statistics.

Hail cut the 1999 crop to 160 million pounds, and a late freeze that wiped out most of the early harvests the year before cut production to 140 million. But in better years, growers have averaged almost 200 million pounds a season, making South Carolina the second-highest peach-producing state in the nation, surpassed only by California.

The decline is part of a pattern that has forced some growers out of business. Fifty years ago, there were 1,400 commercial growers in South Carolina and 4.3 million trees. But by 1996, poor yields and even poorer profits shut down some operations. Of the 125 packing sheds that once thrived in the state's peach prime, only nine remain, six of them along the Ridge. In the early 1980s, there were three times as many.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.