Lovers of fresh local peaches will have to wait later than usual this year to start enjoying the fruit. A freeze in late March caused major damage to the earliest-ripening varieties in Aiken and Edgefield counties.
“Our early crop has been devastated, as far as I'm concerned, and I think everybody else around here is in the same boat,” said J.W. “Sonny” Yonce III of J.W. Yonce & Sons on Tuesday. “There will be very few, if any, peaches until July on the Ridge. There might be a few May peaches around for baskets, and there might be a few June peaches around. But they're going to be expensive, simply because of supply and demand.”
Yonce & Sons has more than 4,000 acres of peach groves in Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda counties. The earliest-ripening peaches represent 40 to 45 percent of the grower's total crop.
“The game's not over, but the game certainly has been short-circuited,” Yonce said. “The crop hasn't been totally ruined. We will have marketable product in July, August and September.”
Yonce estimated the freeze would cost Yonce & Sons “millions of dollars.” He was concerned there might be further damage to Yonce & Sons' trees early on Wednesday morning because the temperature was expected to drop to 33 degrees.
“It's supposed to be fairly chilly; it will be interesting to see what happens,” he said.
According to the National Weather Service in Columbia, temperatures fell to 27 degrees on March 26 and 27 in Augusta and the surrounding area.
“We were surprised that we had so much death,” Yonce said. “We didn't think it got that cold, but, evidently, there was a wind chill factor that surprised us all. Most of our May peaches are gone, and a substantial number of our early June peaches are gone.”
Jimmy Forrest of Dixie Bell Peaches is facing a similar problem.
“Our May and June varieties have been frozen out,” he said. “It will be a slow start to the summer, but we'll have plenty of peaches starting in July.”
Dixie Belle's 2,000 acres of peach groves are located in Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda counties. The earliest ripening peaches make up 80 percent of the grower's crop.
“The May and early June fruit definitely was hit very hard,” said South Carolina Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture Martin Eubanks. “But I don't want the message to be that there won't be any peaches this year. We know we've got fruit; the season is just going to have a later start.”
Clingstone peaches were harmed the most by the low temperatures because their trees were “in full bloom or just past full bloom” when the freeze occurred, according to Eubanks.
“The Upstate came through the freeze in pretty good shape, but their crop doesn't usually start ripening until June,” Eubanks said. “I understand that they're OK in the Sandhills region. In the lower part of the state, basically in Allendale County, they still have some early peaches.”
State officials and growers are in the process of gathering information to determine the impact of the freeze statewide.
“We're assessing the overall crop situation, and we have more work to do,” Eubanks said. “We'll know more in the next week or two.”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013.