Cold weather could take bite out of Georgia's famous fruit - CBS46 News

Cold weather could take bite out of Georgia's famous fruit

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(Source: WGCL) (Source: WGCL)

This week’s weather could take a big bite out of Georgia’s most famous fruit.

Peach growers across the state are waiting to see how much of their crop they may have lost to the freezing temperatures.

I packed my warm jacket and drove to Peach County to see for myself.

Peach grower Lee Dickey pulls a sharp knife from khaki winter trousers. He opens it with a flick and pares a peach bud.

“See right there? That’s where the peach is,” he says. 

I’m staring, hard, wanting a magnifying glass, imagining a bright red globe of goodness swelling into a magnificent peach by late May.

Instead, I need a crystal ball.

Will these frost-burned buds survive? Will they dare to make a peach?

The beauty is irresistible, even at 28 degrees on a bright sunny Wednesday morning. Lee Dickey and his parents, grandparents and a dozen or more other workers have created a landscape of black tree trunks,  four or five branches each, pruned into a Bonsai-like hand thrusting out of the Peach County topsoil.

Today, the trees cradle delicate pink blossoms. A thousand acres planted in twenty varieties are spaced in even rows. The land, and the reputation for excellent peaches, put Dickey Farms among the top Georgia peach growers. These blossoms are early, thanks to a few weeks of gorgeous middle Georgia weather.

Every year, Lee tells me, variable temperatures give every peach farmer the fits.

Did the week’s sudden freezes clobber the blossoms?

“This weather we've had in the past few days, 70's in day, cool at night? Ideal this time of year. Getting below freezing? Makes you a little nervous.”

He points me to the inside of a bud. I see brown within the green. It looks like freezer burn to me.

Lee smiles and folds his knife back into a pocket.  

A New Book! THE GEORGIA PEACH: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South.  

What’s the big deal? Newcomers sometimes ask why Georgia is the Peach State.

It’s not like all the chickens in Georgia’s number one food industry product froze their tail feathers. And it’s not as if Georgia is the nation’s biggest peach grower. California, and even South Carolina have out-produced us.

But still. It’s Georgia, and these are peaches.

Why is the peach on the license plate, the state quarter? Why is the state’s automatic electronic highway card called a Peach Pass?

It’s a story of Culture, and Horticulture, according to a prize-winning Kennesaw State University professor.

He told me the peach’s place in the hearts and minds of Georgians is more than its taste. It's marketing, plus geography.

“Georgia’s was the first peach to make it to market in New York, in Philadelphia, in markets of the north. Georgia's was the first one.”

That is William Thomas Okie, Dr. Okie to his Kennesaw students. Perhaps they call him doctor. The young-looking professor of Social Studies reminds us the peach emerged as a viable commodity “at a moment when the South was desperate for a reputation makeover.”

In his new history of the Georgia Peach, he says peach growing  took off in the early 20th century, heavily promoted at a time when the state needed a public makeover from radical reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and racial violence. He's convinced tasting a Georgia peach changed the national image of the state.

Gospel singers, baseball players, perhaps even pool sharks call themselves the Georgia Peach.

It’s a fun read, and reminds me that Fruitlands, the home of the Augusta Masters’ Golf Tournament, began its life as a laboratory for a Belgian newcomer creating a new world of peaches.

But back to Lee Dickey. On this cold morning, he’s not lingering among the blooming trees. The variety we’re checking, named Early Prince, seems to be standing up to the cold. He thinks he's got about a fifth of his blooming trees at risk.

I ask him to repeat himself. “20 percent of your crop is at risk?”  

“That's right,” he said.

“That's a lot of money,” I said.

“Absolutely. Yeah,” he replied. 

But he’s still smiling. He reminds me “you've got to stay optimistic in this business!”

I’m optimistic that thinning the trees in April and May will take out some of the smaller peaches, letting others grow larger.

And by late May, and June, and July, and maybe even into August, the fruit we’re worrying about today will be making us glad for Georgia Peaches.

I’m betting on the Dickeys. 

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