South Carolina peach crop hurt by late freeze

Early heat wave threatening berries

On Tuesday morning, Andy Callaham, manager of Callaham Orchards in Belton, South Carolina, dealt with peach-tree damage inflicted by a springtime freeze.

In the afternoon, he coped with a heat wave that threatened his strawberries.

Callaham said the farm has lost 20 percent or more of its fruit trees, which numbered about 4,000 at this time last year.

At least 800 trees have died in the past year, most of them peach trees, and Callaham attributes most of the damage to a 6-degree night in January. In addition, two subfreezing nights in late March, and a near-freezing night in April, will reduce fruit yield.

“The March freeze didn’t kill a lot of trees, but it knocked off a lot of fruit,” Callaham said.

The early-season varieties (Flav-o-rich, Garnet Beauty and Ruby Prince) and the late-season varieties (Big Red, Flavor Prince and Oh Henry) were affected most, Callaham said.

“The midseason varieties, like Red Haven and Contender, have more hearty flowers,” Callaham explained.

Because it takes peach trees at least three years to produce fruit, Callaham called the tree loss “a four-five-year” setback.

“In farming, it’s either too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry,” Callaham said. “You’ve got to constantly adjust.”

The heat was a concern late Tuesday. As temperatures neared 90 for the second day, Callaham showered his one-acre strawberry field with cold water.

“We’re trying to get the temperature down,” said Callaham, who normally waters the plants only in the morning.

Strawberries produce best between 75 and 82 degrees, Callaham said.

“If it gets over 95 degrees, the flowers will be sterile. Any time it reaches 90 degrees, that’s not good for strawberries,” Callaham said.

Callaham wasn’t the only South Carolina grower to be hurt by the winter freeze. Clemson Extension agent Andy Rollins reported freeze damage Tuesday to peach trees throughout the Upstate, and said some farmers in Spartanburg County lost their entire peach crop.

“Some were badly hit, to the extent that they’re done for the year as far as the peach crop goes,” Rollins said Tuesday.

Rollins said “the cold snap of April 16 did significant damage,” and said younger trees were damaged most.

On Monday, state agriculture officials said the late-March freeze killed roughly 30 percent of South Carolina’s peach crop, resulting in about $27 million in lost revenue.

State Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers talked about the state’s losses and said early-ripening peaches in Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda counties were hit hardest.

According to agriculture officials, revenue for South Carolina’s peach industry was $49 million last year, and there are 17,000 acres of peach trees across the state. South Carolina’s peach production ranks No. 2 in the nation, behind California.

Heat, meanwhile, will be the primary concern for farmers and nonfarmers this week. On the heels of the first 90-degree day of the season, James Oh of the National Weather Service sounded like a meteorologist in midsummer form.

“We’ll not see any rain or showers until the weekend, and temperatures will be above normal for the next seven days,” Oh said.

Last year, Upstate South Carolina didn’t experience its first 90-degree day until June 12.

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