Weather is peachy for farmers

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ALBANY, Ga. - After weeks of summer-like weather, Georgia and South Carolina peach growers welcomed a winter storm that brought lower temperatures to their orchards, adding to the chill hours their trees must accumulate to produce the sweet fruit.

  Michael Holahan/Staff
Michael Holahan/Staff

"We welcome this cold weather," said Martin Eubanks, the director of marketing for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. "We're sorry that everybody else may not enjoy it. But because of this cold weather, this summer they'll be able to enjoy a great peach from South Carolina."

The National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory Thursday morning for parts of northeast and east-central Georgia as temperatures dipped to near freezing. The weather threat prompted the cancellation of at least 70 flights out of Atlanta, and seven north Georgia counties canceled classes because of slick or icy roads.

In Columbia, the daytime high was expected to reach only 37 degrees Thursday.

But peach growers weren't complaining. Their trees need temperatures below 45 degrees for hundreds of hours to bloom properly and produce fruit. The chill-hour requirements can range from about 600 to 900 hours, depending on the varieties.

Fort Valley and Byron, located in middle Georgia where the bulk of the state's peaches are grown, had been low on chill hours.

Since Oct. 1, Fort Valley had received only 479 hours, compared with 660 during the same period in 2005-06, and Byron had 528, compared with 698 the year before. Farther South, the town of Dixie, located in a smaller peach-producing area near the Florida line, had 360 hours, compared with 457 hours the year before.

"I'm excited," said grower Al Pearson, president of Big 6 Farm, which has between 1,300 and 1,400 acres of orchards in the Fort Valley area.

"I've got my shirt off. I'm trying to make it feel colder than it is."

Robert Dickey III, the past president of the Georgia Peach Commission, said growers have been concerned about the unusually warm winter. They need normal winter temperatures, or below, for the next month to catch up, said Mr. Dickey, whose family has been growing peaches near the middle-Georgia town of Musella since 1989.

"We're loving this weather," he said. "Cloudy, rainy, cold weather suits us perfectly."

Frank Taylor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, near Atlanta, said there were reports Thursday of a few accidents in northeast Georgia and up to a quarter-inch of ice on signs and trees.

Georgia can expect normal or lower temperatures for the next 10 days, and there's a chance it could continue for as much as 30 days, he said. That could mean nighttime lows in the 30s and daytime highs in the 40s and 50s.

Katherine Taylor, the University of Georgia's peach specialist, said she's optimistic growers will get enough chill hours, based on historical information.

"In most years, we pick up a lot of cold between Jan. 20 and the end of February," she said.

California is the nation's leading peach-producing state, followed by South Carolina and Georgia.

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