Get ‘Em Now: Local Peach Shortage Looms

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Too little and too late: Chilton County peach grower Henry Williams points out commercially useless peaches in his orchard.

Dan Carsen, WBHM

Too little and too late: Chilton County peach grower Henry Williams points out commercially useless peaches in his orchard.

If you love locally grown peaches, the kind you see at roadside stands and farmers markets in Alabama, stock up while you can. Mainly because of weird weather over the winter, there’s almost certainly going to be a dip in supply.

There’s already a significant dip in the number of peaches in Chilton County farmer Henry Williams’ cooler. Walking into it is an intense sensory experience. The concentrated peach essence on the bracing air makes your mouth water. But besides the few boxes of fruit, there’s something unusual in that cavernous room: space.

“Normally this time of year, we’d be pressed to fit everything in here,” says Williams. “At least two or three days a week, this thing’d be full. It ain’t even been half full this year.”

Normally Henry Williams would be accompanied by a lot more peaches in his cooler.
Normally Henry Williams would be accompanied by a lot more peaches here.
Dan Carsen, WBHM

It’s ironic learning about this in a cooler, because the main reason there are fewer peaches here and across the South is warmth.

As the appropriately named Jim Pitts, who heads Auburn University’s Chilton Research and Extension Center, puts it, “in order for the peaches to develop, they have to have so many hours of cold weather. [But last winter] we did not have enough chill for the hormones of that tree to trigger, for the flowering to begin, for the leaves to begin. This could be a double-whammy, because not only do you lose your crop, but we could be losing trees.”

Even just riding in Henry Williams’ pickup, you can see that double-whammy is not hypothetical. Healthy looking trees and sickly trees are interspersed across his 125-acre orchard.

“We’re going to lose a lot of trees this year due to the lack of chill,” he says. Some of the trees are relatively heavy with peaches. But many are not. Williams points to one:

“This tree – there might be 25 on it. There should be 400.”

A peach "grader," where workers normally sort waves and waves of peaches. Note the lack of workers, and peaches.
A peach “grader,” where workers normally sort waves and waves of peaches. Note the lack of workers and peaches.
Dan Carsen, WBHM

Williams says he’s had good years recently that will help tide him over, but farmers who haven’t will likely have to rely on other sources of income. That’s also true of the field workers, who are getting far fewer paid hours than normal.

“It’s a pretty detrimental thing because there are growers in our county that have less than 20 percent of a crop,” says Williams.

If lots of trees die, there may be a long-term drop-off too. It takes three or four years for a peach tree to start producing.

When the commercially viable (read "large") peaches are few and far between, growers actually spend more on gas and labor per box of peaches.
When the peaches are few and far between, growers spend more on fuel and labor per box of peaches.

But what about this season?

“Between now and the Fourth [of July], there are some growers that will basically be finished with the season by then. Normally our season lasts until the end of August,” says Williams.

In other words, though there’ll be plenty of peaches shipped in from California and other places, if you like the unique taste of the locally grown fruit, they’ll likely cost more, and you might want to get them now.