Sunny, mild days with highs in the 60s and 70s are the last thing Alabama’s peach growers want. A peach expert with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System says growers would prefer cooler weather until bloom time.
“We are behind on chill hours this year,” said Gary Gray, an Alabama Extension regional commercial horticulture agent. “Varieties grown in Alabama may need anywhere from 650 to more than a 1000 hours below 45 degrees to satisfy their chilling requirements.”
As of Feb. 9, the Chilton Research and Extension Center which is in the heart of Alabama’s peach production area had 781 hours below 45 degrees F since Oct. 1. The 10-year average at the Center is 935 hours by Feb. 9, while the average since 1958 when record keeping began is more than 1100 hours on the same date.
“Central and south Alabama will be more affected by lack of chilling than north Alabama where chilling appears adequate,” said Gray. “If consistent cold temperatures continue into March, chilling requirements for most crops could be satisfied throughout much of the state.”
Gray explained that fruit and leaf buds go into a resting or dormant period during fall and winter months. These buds remain dormant until they have accumulated enough chilling hours.
“If buds don’t get enough chilling hours during the winter, bloom and leaf out may go on for a longer time,” said Jim Pitts, director of Auburn University’s Chilton Research and Extension Center. “Longer bloom times turns into longer harvest periods in the summer.”
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He added a lengthy bloom period could mean pickers might have to make four or five trips through the orchard instead of the usual two or three.
“Extra passes through the orchard to harvest will cost the farmer in additional labor costs.”
Pitts added that in addition to longer bloom times, a lack of adequate chill hours could mean reduced fruit set.
In 2014, Alabama growers harvested more than 3.5 million pounds of peaches worth $2.28 million from about 1500 acres of orchards.