News Peach Perfect: Farmers Pleased with Summer Crop

Peach Perfect: Farmers Pleased with Summer Crop

Peach Perfect: Farmers Pleased with Summer Crop
July 2, 2024 |

By Marlee Jackson

This summer, farmers in the Peach Capital of Alabama are soaking in the smell of sweet, sun-warmed fruit.

The Chilton County growers are exhaling a sigh of relief, too, after back-to-back late freezes led to languishing crops in 2022 and 2023.

“The difference in this year and the past couple of years is we’ve actually got peaches,” said Keith Evans, who farms in Verbena.

When dormant, peaches crave the cold, and this winter’s frosty weather helped most varieties brush past their chill requirement. That set number of chill hours (or temperatures at or below 45 F) is essential for fruit development. 

The flip side, Evans said, is prolonged or late-spring freezes can damage tender peach blossoms or already-maturing fruit. While this year’s peach crop is plentiful, farmers are still seeing split seeds and some smaller-than-usual fruit. The effects could be due to tremendous rainfall in February and March, plus a late spring freeze. 

Chilton County farmer Keith Evans, right, discussed this year’s peach crop with Alabama Farmers Federation’s Blake Thaxton. A wet winter and late freeze slightly hampered the crop, though not as badly as the last two seasons.

Lynn Harrison said it’s particularly evident in early maturing peaches. Harrison farms outside of Maplesville and serves on the Chilton County Farmers Federation (CCFF) board with Evans.

“I think we had some cold damage and pollination issues we couldn’t recognize,” said Harrison, the CCFF president, noting other stone fruit like plums also showed signs of stunted growth. “Usually, you can pick a tree a few times, and the peaches are the same size as the first ones when you go back for the next round. This year, you go over it once, and what you’ve got left are smaller peaches.”

Despite issues, Harrison is upbeat. He said the impact will likely lessen in the latter half of the season.

“I think we’re about to get over the hump,” said Harrison in early June. “Everything later in the year is progressing along like it should.”

Keith Evans, right, helped load a truck with peaches and other produce destined for a farm stand in Eclectic.

That’s good news in a region where pit stops for peaches are the norm. Beach-bound travelers often flock to roadside stands and markets where baskets piled high with peaches should abound through August.

David Heflin gets the peach craze. He works closely with specialty crop farmers like Evans and Harrison as the Alabama Farmers Federation Area 5 Organization director. Heflin is a lifelong Chilton countian, too, and is proud of his neighbors’ product.

“In this area, peaches mean summertime,” he said.

Back in Verbena, summer’s bounty means Evans and wife Michelle are frequenting farmers markets to sell peaches and other produce. It’s also allowing Evans Farm to wholesale peaches to grocery stores and curbside markets. Larger-scale deliveries were impossible the previous summer.

“Last year, I picked a handful of peaches off these trees,” said Evans, walking past branches heavy with burnished-gold fruit.

Chilton County Farmers Federation President Lynn Harrison said he’s thankful for this year’s plentiful crop of peaches, which followed two dismal seasons.

He could average 10 baskets a tree in that same orchard this summer.

While Evans and Harrison agree the crop could be even better, they said the improvement over the last two years is a blessing.

The Federation’s Blake Thaxton shared their sentiment. As the commodity director for specialty crop growers, Thaxton monitors weather patterns each spring. Following large weather events, he checks on farmer-members to gauge the level of impact.

“That late freeze still hurt some of our growers, but that’s why they invest in crop insurance or set aside several years’ worth of production costs in the bank,” said Thaxton, also executive director of the Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association. “It might not be perfect, but we’re going to call this season normal.”

Peach connoisseurs were ready for normal. Harrison said messages from excited perennial customers rolled in this spring asking when his family’s farm stand would open.

“You can only have so many bad years,” he said. “We’re thankful for how the good Lord blessed us this year.” 

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