Aug 1, 2022 - News

Climate change challenges Georgia peaches

Illustration of a peach with a bikini tan line.
Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Heat is changing Georgia's farming landscape, making it more challenging to grow cash crops — and calling cards — like peaches and blueberries, WABE's Sam Gringlas reports.

Why it matters: Georgia agriculture employs one of every 10 residents and contributes more than $70 billion to the state's economy.

What's happening: Warmer winters have reduced the number of "chill hours" — the important time when peach trees, blueberry bushes and other fruit-bearing plants go dormant.

  • Higher temperatures could also mean trees bloom and fruits ripen earlier — and become less likely to survive an early frost.

What they're doing: Long-term, temperatures are only expected to rise. Farmers are adapting by selecting fruit varieties that don’t need as many chill hours, Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia, tells Axios Atlanta.

  • They’re also investing in frost-protection measures like irrigation and fans, she says.

Yes, but: Warmer temperatures in South Georgia have created conditions ideal for producing satsumas, the orange’s hardier cousin.

  • In the near future, Knox says, Georgia could see more grapefruits and other citrus, though limes are less likely — they thrive best in very hot places like south Florida.

What's next: Each segment of the agriculture industry — it includes forestry and livestock like broiler chickens, Georgia's No. 1 industry — works on different time horizons, Knox says.

  • Growers operate crop-by-crop and year-by-year so they're mostly focused on the variability of what they're growing and market demand.

Of note: Despite its pride in being the Peach State, Georgia's peach production trails South Carolina and California.

  • Georgia became synonymous with the fruit because peaches ripened earlier here than our competitors and appeared in markets earlier, creating brand recognition, Knox says.

The big picture: Regardless of the effects of climate change on Georgia crops, Knox says, the state will remain an agricultural powerhouse and could see even more crops if droughts continue to hamstring mega-producers like California.

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