Only 25 percent of peach crop marketable

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 19, 2007

What was looking like a good crop of peaches for this year turned bad with just two nights of cold last week, and now local officials are expecting a low percentage of the crop to be marketable.

Peach farmers statewide could be facing as much as a $50 million to $75 million loss, said State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. That could mean the state could see a negative economic impact of as much as $250 million, which may prompt Sparks and Gov. Bob Riley to ask for a federal disaster declaration on all crops lost from the freeze.

&uot;If and when Congress passes a federal farm assistance bill, we will need to have a disaster declaration before farmers in Alabama will receive any assistance,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;And I think we should be able to get more than just low-interest loans for the people here.&uot;

Jim Pitts, superintendent of the Chilton Research and Extension Center, said conditions were ripe this year for a bumper crop, but the freeze ruined that.

&uot;We had good chill hours. The trees bloomed later than normal, which was good so that a late frost wouldn’t kill the blooms. We couldn’t have asked for a better spring before those two days last week,&uot; Pitts said.

Using a survey taken from local farmers last Friday, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System for Chilton and Autauga Counties reported that only 25 percent of the peach crop would be marketable. Of the 1,557 acres of peach orchards reported, 922 acres had a total loss and 224 acres reported a poor to fair crop condition.

Only 302 acres saw little damage and was in good to excellent condition.

In addition, only 21 percent of the nectarines and 22 percent of the blueberries will be marketable this year. Around half of the plums and strawberries were lost to the cold weather. At least 60 more growers were not available to take part in the survey.

Pitts said that those estimates are still optimistic.

&uot;We could easily see those numbers go lower with time because the damage from the freeze may not show up for several weeks,&uot; Pitts said.

Local peach grower Tom Bentley said most farmers in the county have insurance for their crops, but he asked Sparks to get some help with the adjusters for compensation for losses.

&uot;For the farmers that have already lost everything this year, we need to go ahead get them help now and not wait until August or September,&uot; Bentley said. &uot;With everybody else, we might need to wait until the end of the season to see the total damage from the frost.&uot;

Sparks toured several farms yesterday across the state seeing the damage.

&uot;I’ve seen tears in more than one farmer’s eyes this year,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;Peaches are something that cannot be replanted for this year. We will do the best we can to help the farmers get assistance.&uot;