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Peach Growers Cautiously Optimistic

March 17, 1998

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) _ Temperatures are rising and with them the spirits of peach growers, who were cautiously optimistic South Carolina’s usual $35 million crop emerged from last week’s bitter cold merely damaged, and not destroyed.

``We’re not out of the peach business yet,″ said Larry Yonce, who grows peaches on about 1,000 acres in Saluda County. ``If the next 30 days are good to us, we’ll have a marketable crop.″

State Agriculture Commissioner Les Tindal said he would tour peach-growing areas Thursday to determine whether to seek government aid for farmers.

Yonce said early-season varieties that bloomed about 10 days early because of an unseasonably warm winter brought on by El Nino were heavily damaged. But growers usually have a mix of early- and late-blooming peaches.

``We know that everything in full bloom was destroyed,″ he said. ``In some varieties _ the early ones _ it was pretty much a total kill.″

Early varieties make up only about 15 percent of the state crop. The subfreezing cold seemed to spare buds from later varieties, said Bob McCurry, executive director of the South Carolina Peach Council.

``It looks a little better and brighter to me than during the period we were having the cold,″ he said. ``By a quirk of nature, we have live buds out there and we still have crop potential.″

South Carolina is the second-largest peach-producing state after California, with 20,000 acres of peaches worth an estimated $35 million.

Yonce said the cold was a repeat of an early frost two years ago _ but four other frosts followed in that season, wiping out 95 percent of the crop.

It will probably be several weeks before the full impact is known because farmers are limited in what they can learn walking through an orchard checking blossoms, he said. Once the shuck around the peach embryo sheds, farmers will know whether they have a peach.

``It appears we have peaches,″ said Corrin Bowers, who farms 20 acres in Hampton County and has been growing peaches for 40 years. ``It’s surprising because it got down to 22 on Friday morning.″

``I have seen the thermometer get down to 27 and wipe us out and I have seen it get to 22 and we have peaches,″ Bowers said. The difference is the chemical makeup of the bud at the time the frost hits, he said.

Larry Smith, a spokesman for the South Carolina Farm Bureau, said some estimates put the loss of early varieties at about 40 percent.

``I don’t think that it is quite as severe as ’96,″ he said. ``This is really the first bad freeze we have had.″

In Georgia, the No. 3 producer of peaches, precise readings of crop losses are not yet available, said Mark Collier, a University of Georgia extension agent in Fort Valley.

``We do have peaches. We’re not totally wiped out,″ he said.

``In general, there’s been more damage to the early peaches, but there is no bottom line at this time as to figures,″ Collier said.

As in South Carolina, he said the loss won’t be as bad as in 1996, when 90 percent of the crop was destroyed.

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