Andrew Dys

March 4, 2014

York County’s peach crop survived brutal cold

Peach tree buds in York County are still mainly dormant after sub-freezing temperatures.

From Monday afternoon through Tuesday morning, as rain turned to sleet and cold settled over York County, peach growers didn’t do a lot of sleeping.

Praying, maybe, but rest was tough, as those who produce York County’s signature summer fruit crop watched the temperatures plummet more than 40 degrees in a few hours.

But it appears that most peach tree buds – the fragile, tender bloom from which the fruit emerges – remained closed and unharmed.

“Thankfully, the buds aren’t far enough along yet, and we are in real good shape,” said Ben Smith, owner of The Peach Tree Orchards in York, who was out in his orchards Tuesday morning making sure his trees handled the cold.

“It got cold, but not so far down to 12 or 10 degrees or so that we would have seen some damage. But right now, you can’t see any peach yet in these buds – and that’s a good thing.”

Only a small number of trees of a couple of early-bearing varieties had bloomed after several warm days in the 60s and 70s and were affected by the cold overnight Monday and into Tuesday, said Ron Edwards, manager of Springs Farm in Fort Mill.

Springs Farm produces more than 50 varieties of peaches on 70 acres that hold more than 15,000 peach trees.

“We always take a gamble with a few early varieties from California that we can pick early and start the selling season, and those few trees already had blooms that were out and the cold got to them,” Edwards said. “But 99 percent of our trees are tight in the bud, meaning the buds are still intact and haven’t come out yet.”

After a couple more cold nights around freezing, he said, the long-range forecast is showing that peach growers might escape a spring freeze that can be disastrous.

“We are hoping for a really good crop,” Edwards said.

Peaches are picked generally from around Memorial Day through just after Labor Day, as different varieties ripen.

York County is one of the top 10 peach-growing counties in the state. South Carolina produces the second-most peaches in America behind only California – but ahead of Georgia, which bills itself “The Peach State.”

Western York County’s large peach farms are a destination for tourists from Canada to Florida and all points in between, so there is always concern that early blooms and buds could be harmed by the cold.

So far, lifelong peach farmer Arthur Black of Black’s Peaches said, his acres of trees have not yet bloomed.

“We had some scuppernong (grape) vines just burst when it got down to about 5 degrees this winter,” Black said. “Now that is cold, but our peach trees are right where we want them to be.

“This peach business, I have seen trees bloom out in January and still have fruit later on, and I have seen them bloom out in March and not have the best yields. Right now, after these next few cold nights, we may be out of the woods.”

A string of cold days and nights – like what we’ve had the past three months – is actually good for peaches. Peach varieties need up to a thousand “chill hours” during the winter for the trees to produce the best fruit.

This year’s endless winter and storms brought plenty, Black said.

A few farmers west of York County reported some damage, said Andy Rollins, a Clemson Extension agricultural agent who specializes in peach trees. One reporting station reported 22.5 degrees eight feet off the ground – at higher branches where peach blooms are the most vulnerable.

One grower even reported ice in some buds, Rollins said, as growers checked orchards and groves Tuesday.

“Thankfully,” he said, trees have thousands of buds that growers have to prune and thin down to hundreds for optimum peach quality, size and flavor.

“The fruit tree – these peach trees specifically – have far more buds than they need, and they have to be thinned anyway,” Rollins said. “The peach tree is the eternal optimist. It grows more than it needs.”

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