Alabama Cooperative Extension System fruit specialists are estimating Alabama’s peach producers are harvesting only 10 to 30 percent of their normal crop this season. A lethal combination of a low number of chill hours, recent drought conditions and a late frost have stressed peach crops across the state.
Low Chill Hours
Gary Gray, an Alabama Extension regional commercial horticulture agent, said that a low number of chill hours causes problems for peach production.
“When varieties receive inadequate chilling, they may experience slowness to break dormancy, a long bloom period, slow leaf emergence and poor or varied fruit size development,” said Gray. “This can be problematic for fruit varieties with high chill requirements.”
Dr. Edgar Vinson, an Alabama Extension fruit specialist, said that the low chill hours caused problems with peach trees.
“The chill hours we received this year were among the lowest on record. At least 800 to 850 chill hours are preferred to satisfy the chill hour requirement of most of the peach varieties,” said Vinson. “The chill hour requirement of many peach varieties was not met. This caused delayed, sporadic blooming or no blooming at all which was frequently the case.”
According to Vinson, producers also experienced an issue with reduced leaf bud break and leaf expansion.
“Not only did trees struggle to bloom, but they struggled to produce leaves,” said Vinson. “This caused producers to be less concerned about having a crop and more concerned for tree survival.”
Additionally, many trees did not have enough leaf cover to produce adequate photosynthate for energy in the early season. Attempts were made to induce leaf bud break and promote leaf expansion with some positive results but more will be known when that experiment is completed.
Vinson said that next year’s peach crop could be affected by this delayed leaf production.
“The varieties with higher chill hours did eventually produce leaves but late in the season,” said Vinson. “Delayed leaf production and shoot growth may affect next year’s crop due to reduced production of bud wood that will bear the fruit next year.”
In addition to the low number of chill hours, peach producers also had to battle the effects of the drought.
Vinson said that the addition of the drought makes things even more challenging for producers.
“When you add the low chill hour numbers with the drought from last year you have a particularly challenging season for peach production,” said Vinson. “This drought stress, among other things, causes the formation of doubles. This appears to be two fruit from a single flower fused together.”
Gary Gray said that this year is difficult for not just the peach industry but all fruit growers.
“It is an extremely difficult year for fruit growers in central Alabama due to the short crop and the potential loss of trees, especially among high chilling varieties,” said Gray. “Those varieties have been especially stressed due to the last two extremely warm winters as well as last year’s drought.”
Jim Pitts, director of the Chilton Research and Extension Center, said that drought was just a contributing factor to problems peach growers are seeing.
“Peach trees are just like people. When they are stressed, they are more susceptible to disease with lower reserves to fight it off,” said Pitts. “This is how the drought affected peach trees. They were stressed and tired before the low chill hours and frost hit them, making it worst than it would have been.”
Following extreme drought conditions last year, peach crops were hit with a late frost this year. The cold damaged blooms and the developing fruit on some of the low-chill early varieties. The further along in development the blooms and fruits were, the more likely they were to sustain damage.
Vinson said that it will be hard to find peaches as the year goes on.
“In central Alabama, we should have peaches throughout June. It will be a challenge to find peaches beyond that in the area,” said Vinson. “One notable variety, Florida King, was at fruit set at the time of the freeze. None of these trees have fruit on them now.”
In most cases, the cold damage essentially provided some natural flower thinning to trees that were in bloom at the time of the freeze. Peach growers in north Alabama were more affected by this late freeze than the other parts of the state.
The Peach Industry
Pitts said that the combination of all of these events could have an impact on the state’s peach industry.
“We are seeing some producers lose 10 to 20 percent of their peach trees this year. It will take three to four years for the replacement trees to get established and start producing fruit,” said Pitts. “This and the low production level is why we could see higher peach prices this year and possibly next year.”
Pitts said that we could see changes being made to peach production in Alabama.
“The warm winters Alabama has been experiencing are making producers and researchers re-think some things,” he said. “We could see other varieties, like those with low chill hour requirements, start being planted to combat the warm winters we have had.”
Doug Chapman, a regional extension agent in north Alabama, said that while peaches were affected in north Alabama, they were better off than central Alabama.
“We don’t have a lot of peaches to sell, but we have enough to keep up with the local market,” said Chapman. “We were not affected to the extent that central Alabama was. A research team from central Georgia came in early June and was amazed at the production in north Alabama.”