August 2017
Farm & Field

Perseverance in Peach Country

Even top growers in Alabama’s peach capital were affected by adverse weather conditions this season.

 

Dordie Hayes holds a big basket of colorful peaches even though weather problems reduced their best crop.

Dordie and Hal Hayes have been peach producers for decades, but this year’s crop has been one to really remember – for the wrong reasons.

It turned out to be an agricultural nightmare from start to finish in Chilton County, better known as Alabama’s peach capital.

Each day seemed to present new problems and new challenges – too much rain or not enough moisture, lack of cold weather to provide chill days or a late freeze that seemed to mock growers across the region.

August’s arrival in past years always heralded the late peach varieties during the dog days of summer. By the end of this month, however, the peach crop is expected to be the worst in recent memory.

That’s because most of the best peaches were either picked in orchards at the start of the season or just left behind, withering on trees that failed to get the proper number of chill hours.

"In my 50 years being involved with peaches, we’ve never had this severe of a shortage," said Dr. Arlie Powell, the dean of Alabama’s peach industry. "Some peaches were the size of marbles."

Powell, professor emeritus at Auburn University, is as upset over developments as roadside vendors and big operators who counted on big, red peaches to help produce a profitable bottom line at the end of the season.

Jerry Harrison recaptured his title as the “Top Peach Grower” in Alabama with his 21st victory at the 70th Peach Festival in June.

 

 

 

"We were cleaned out of peaches in just a few days," Dordie said. "When customers asked us what happened, all we could do was try to explain some of the factors that got us where we ended up."

Early predictions for this year’s peach crop came true – a drastic dip in production. Weather, once again, turned out to be the culprit.

Dordie and other growers were a bit luckier because a few of their late varieties looked good, but it still proved to be a matter of too few, too late to make much of a difference.

Peach results for Alabama in 2017 amounted to a disappointing harvest that may well be a negative record once all the reports are in by summer’s end.

It was pretty much the same next door in Georgia, known as the Peach State. The same conditions hampering peach production in Alabama hit Georgia.

Growers in Chilton County have been commiserating with one another since the first blooms failed to impress anybody early in the spring.

The shock is slowly wearing off, but it could be next year before smiles return.

Some of the county’s peach farmers apparently put their favorite fruit in one basket and Mother Nature took it from there.

That meant those farmers without backup support in the form of other fruit such as blueberries or a variety of vegetables paid a hefty price because of weather vagaries.

"It hasn’t been a good year for those in the entire peach industry," Powell said. "When you’ve got constant rain, floods and low chill hours, there isn’t much you can do about it."

In past years, peach farmers had to contend with occasional blizzards that wiped out or trimmed back on peach crops, but, for the most part, enough growers survived to make a profit by the end of the season.

Not this year. Powell could see it coming before a lot of the growers did. He knew the signs, and it was anything but encouraging.

"In terms of peach crop production, I said all year that it would be something in the range of 10-30 percent and, unfortunately, it seems to have come true," he said.

Veteran peach growers have discussed the unusual circumstances of the past year and few, if any, have chalked it up to global warming or anything like that.

However, they are worried it will become a trend with warm temperatures again cutting chill hours.

 

Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Commissioner John McMillan, right, and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks attended this year’s Peach Festival.

For most peach growers in Chilton County, their crop is as much a part of their family and its history as the oxygen they breathe. Sitting around and hoping for the best isn’t something they want to think about, but they know their livelihood is at stake if it continues to occur.

Some have begun to focus more and more on row crops just in case that happens. In some parts of the county, "blueberries for sale" signs are posted for visitors to see when they drive through.

Hal, Dordie and other activist farmers have been augmenting their peaches with row crops such as watermelons, tomatoes and other vegetables … just in case.

Loyal customers still buy their fruit, but they also cool off with homemade ice cream and even purchase clothing. However, the growers know that folks come for their peaches. It’s as plain and simple as that.

When the bottom fell out of the peach crop this year, it meant raising prices for what remained, even if they were half the size of previous years.

Some peach farmers have increased their prayers as a way to get their message across to a higher authority for help.

"We try to remain optimistic, but we also know we can’t depend on something that is out of our hands at times," Dordie said. "The weather often dictates our future in the fields."

The weather did intervene early in the season when predictions of possible storms caused Peach Festival officials to call off the popular Peach Parade. It was one of the few times the parade was canceled.

Hal and Dordie have been able to keep their employees on the payroll, but they did have to modify their hours because lack of peaches is a sure business killer.

"We wanted to be able to make it through the Fourth of July, but that wasn’t going to happen," Dordie said. "All we can do now is hope for a better year next year."

The couple began making their own peach baskets a few years ago, but wound up with an excess because there weren’t many, if any, peaches to go into them.

It’s unfortunate, but true, that this year has been pretty much a wipe out for the peach industry in Chilton County.

"We aren’t giving up," said Dordie, who has been a teacher, a school bus driver, sold insurance and even raised baby pigs when times were tough. "After this year, we’ll just have to pray a bit harder."

Not everybody was wearing a frown in Chilton County this year. Jerry Harrison reverted to form by taking the title of "Top Peach Grower" – even if the peaches weren’t as big as in past years.

No other farmer has come close to what he has achieved since the Peach Festival was created just after the end of World War II.

It marked the 21st time he’s won the title. Brother Jimmy Harrison has also won his share of the coveted honor.

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.