Although the recent cold and snowy, icy conditions might not have seemed “peachy” for drivers and those who hate frigid temperatures, York County peach growers are applauding.
Peach trees need as many 1,200 “cold hours” or “chill hours” below 45 degrees for buds to properly be ready to bloom into the area’s signature summer crop.
Everyone who savors the juicy peach nectar running down a forearm after a big bite on the hottest summer days might not know it, but the awful cold is helping make that annual ritual come to fruition.
“The old saying is that snow in the winter means a good crop,” said Bob Hall, owner of Bush-N-Vine in York. “We got the snow Saturday.”
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South Carolina is the second-largest producer of peaches in the country behind California – ahead of neighboring Georgia, which calls itself the Peach State. In York, Filbert, Clover and Fort Mill, peaches are big business from June almost through Labor Day.
“It hadn’t been as cold during January as we had hoped, but the recent cold weather has been a blessing,” said Arthur Black, owner of Black’s Peaches in York. “You can look at some of the trees, peaches and pears, and see the color coming out.”
Ben Smith, owner of the Peach Tree in Filbert – one of South Carolina’s most recognizable roadside stands for six decades – understands that most people don’t like the cold weather, but his acres of trees need that cold to flourish.
“Some varieties of tree need as few as 850 chill hours, but others take 1,100, 1,150, even 1,200 hours to be at their best,” he said. “Some people don’t like a cold stretch in winter, but I sure am not one of them.”
Peach growers are not out of the woods yet, however, as late February and March can sometimes produce warm days that cause buds to appear – only to have a cold snap damage the tender blossoms.
“After the blooms come out, it is critical that it not become extremely cold,” said Miller Coggins, who retired a few years ago after decades in charge of the Springs Farm peach orchards in Fort Mill.
The 2012 crop was excellent, after an early spring pushed peaches to ripeness as much as two weeks sooner than most years.
Peach trees are extremely susceptible to temperature variations, and growers measure it carefully and prune trees so fruit grow more on higher branches. The difference between branches three feet from the ground and those 10 feet up can be three or four degrees, Coggins said.
York County’s peach outlets not only attract local buyers, many have regular customers from across South Carolina and North Carolina.
In July, it is not uncommon to see out-of-state plates from as far away as New York and Florida, as drivers passing through York County stop to buy fruit.
Growers have used genetics, planted late-blooming peach varieties and used other tricks of the trade – but the sweet and juicy peach remains under the control of Mother Nature.
And even though the weather has so far been ideal, peach lovers still have three months or more to wait to see just how the recent cold might have helped this year’s crop.