Recent temperatures affect peach and other fruit harvest this winter

By and on March 15th, 2013

The fluctuating temperatures this winter have made it hard for local farmers to harvest peaches and other fruit.

A frost warning for Thursday night worried many local growers, some of whom were reminded of deadly freezes in February. In mid-February there were temperatures reaching below 20 degrees and killed many crops in the process.

Chestnut Hill Tree Farm owner Robert Wallace said some local growers couldn’t harvest any fruits at all last year.

Luckily, Thursday night’s temperatures didn’t get low enough to hurt the fruit. Typically, fruit is damaged after about enduring temperatures below 28 degrees for about four or five hours.

Up-and-down temperature patterns are especially dangerous for crops like peaches and blueberries, which rely on a period of chilling followed by warmth to produce good fruits, Wallace said. The last few cold weeks can really damage the plants.

“It’s sometimes like playing roulette if you get a really bad combination of weather,” he said.

The cold weather around Thanksgiving and Christmas, like Gainesville experienced this year, can fulfill a peach tree’s dormancy requirement, he said. But a mild January can trick the plants into thinking spring has started. The plants will then begin to flower and even produce fruit.

The peach industry is still comparatively small, and it is unclear so far how the recent years of extreme weather will affect that long term. But Wallace said that as long as there aren’t big losses to weather, north central Florida can grow fresh fruit all year long.

University of Florida stone fruit expert Mercy Olmstead said freezes in the last month have hurt green bean, sweet corn and sugarcane production. The wild fluctuation week by week and the extremely low temperatures have made Gainesville as chilly as cities five hours north.

The risks to the peach industry are dangeours for all kinds of growers, including some citrus growers who have been trying to diversify their production in the wake of citrus disease. Other farmers are following Chestnut Hill Tree Farm’s lead to keep the state’s production as high as it’s been in the past.

Olmstead said proactive measures helped protect trees from the danger of frost.

The best method of frost protection for peach trees is ice. Olmstead said the process of overhead irrigation can keep the fruit from freezing.

She said she hopes the weather challenges didn’t hurt Floridians’ chances to get fresh Florida peaches.

The Florida peach season begins in the next two weeks and should last until early May.

Audreyanna Loguerre wrote this story online.

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