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In Georgia’s Peach Orchards, Warm Winters Raise Specter of Climate Change

Three generations of Robert Lee Dickeys faced a failed crop after an unusually warm winter. They talk about it as weather rather than climate change.

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This story is part of the series Finding Middle Ground: Conversations Across America. It was also published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

MUSELLA, Georgia — Three generations of Robert Lee Dickeys share the two chairs in the cozy office of Dickey Farms, the younger always deferring to the elder. For 120 years, the Dickeys have been producing peaches so juicy they demand to be eaten over the kitchen sink.

Robert Lee “Mr. Bob” Dickey II, 89, is slightly stooped but moves quickly, dropping in just for a morning read of the Wall Street Journal. His son Robert Dickey III, 63, and his grandson, who goes by Lee, age 33, stick around all day, fielding calls and customers, checking the orchards. The next-generation Dickey is having her morning nap and will appear later in a tiny flowered dress, cradled in the arms of her mother, Lee’s wife, Stacy.

Just outside the office is the retail shop, where I watch customers drift into an open-air porch with white rocking chairs and a breeze, to consider peaches. Or, rather, the lack of peaches.

It’s mid-July, what should be peak season, but the only variety on offer is Zee Ladies, almost the last of this year’s fruit. Behind the cash registers, the peach production line is still and silent, lights switched off.

Musella, Georgia, map

In a normal year, midsummer would be abuzz with workers packing July Prince peaches in boxes they pull from hooks swirling overhead. But this year, about 85 percent of Georgia’s peach crop failed. It wasn’t a freeze, though they did lose some fruit to a mid-March dip into the 20s. And it wasn’t hail, though a hail storm in early April took some, too. The harvest failed because it was a warm winter. A very warm winter, even warmer than the warm winter the year before.

It was 1990 when, sitting in an undergraduate biology class at the University of Georgia in Athens, I first heard the term “global warming.” I remember only one fact the professor offered that day: if the Earth’s temperature continued its apparent rise, peaches would no longer be able to grow in the Peach State of Georgia. Now, 27 years later, it was looking like that prophecy was coming true. Could this year’s ruined crop be a harbinger of warmer winters to come?

“I was very skeptical two years ago,” Mr. Bob’s son Robert says. “But with two warm winters I’m beginning to pay a lot more notice to it.”

I ask how many consecutive winters he’d have to experience before he started planting varieties that could handle warmer weather. He laughs, then says, “Maybe one more.”

Naming the Problem

An iconic sweet Georgia peach might be the hallmark of summer, but its life cycle begins in darkest winter, deep inside still-bare tree branches. Most winters, when cold fronts are dumping snow up north, frigid air sweeps down South, causing something physiological to happen in the cells of buds that will send forth new leaves and bear the stone fruit come spring. It’s the cyclical reset button, the seeming nothingness that allows everything else to occur.

Peaches—along with many other fruits and nuts, from apples to walnuts—need cold like you need sleep, not just any sleep but dream-state sleep, the deeper and more sustained the better. This year, they did not get it.

The Dickeys have been peach farmers since 1897, when Mr. Bob’s grandfather first planted trees in the dirt of middle Georgia, where the soil and elevation and water serve the crop well. Along with a handful of nearby peach growing operations, the Dickeys now dominate the Georgia peach market, the country’s third largest after California and South Carolina.  They cultivate a thousand acres of peaches, and nothing but peaches.

Mr. Bob Dickey, the patriarch of the peach-growing family, is willing to talk about weather but not climate change. Credit: Meera Subramanian
Mr. Bob Dickey, the patriarch of the peach-growing family, is willing to talk about weather but not climate change. Credit: Meera Subramanian

“This is one of the few years that I can remember that we didn’t have enough cold weather,” Mr. Bob tells me as we sit knee-to-knee so he can hear me. “Most of us peach growers, we worry more about spring frost … but this year the crop was decimated on account of lack of cold weather.”

I’ve come to middle Georgia curious if peach growers were experiencing a changing climate that threatened the state fruit—not to mention their generational legacy—but Mr. Bob insisted this year’s crop failure had nothing to do with that thing the politicians call climate change.

Weather, Mr. Bob tells me, “it comes and goes, and you have cycles. I think we’re in a warming cycle this year.” He looks at me with pale blue eyes and smiles. “It might be cold as mischief next year!” he says, laughing. Soon he is out the door, on the way to a friend’s funeral.

The Chill Is Gone

Each year, on the first of October, the Dickeys and other peach growers start counting every hour that dips below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, a “chill hour.” Most peaches grown in Georgia need at least 650 of these chill hours, which usually isn’t a problem in a region with an historic average of 1,100 chill hours per winter.

But last winter the chill-hour count was only about 450 by the middle of January. Then it just stalled. By Valentine’s Day, when the farmers are usually long done counting, the figure hadn’t reached 500.

Like all peach farmers, the Dickeys tread a fine line, attempting to grow the peaches that ripen earliest, so they can lead the national market, while not getting caught by late freezes. In early 2017, Georgia’s struggle with its lack of chill hours meant a sluggish bloom. The canopy of pink was diminished, the iridescent green of new leaves hampered, even as the days got longer and spring progressed. The trees had not slept, so they did not know to awaken.  

This meant that when a March freeze hit, there was almost no damage in Georgia; the trees had barely bloomed. In South Carolina, though, the same freeze was devastating. The South Carolina winter had been just cold enough to adequately stimulate buds, but so warm that they erupted early. With the March freeze, South Carolina farmers lost nearly everything.

According to NOAA, Georgia and South Carolina together suffered $1 billion in peach crop losses this year.

These small peaches, known as buttons, never fully developed this, in part because of the lack of chill hours. Credit: Meera Subramanian
These small peaches, known as buttons, never fully developed this year, in part because of the lack of chill hours. Credit: Meera Subramanian

The prior winter had been warm as well, Robert tells me. That year, the peaches pulled through. This year, they did not.

“We hold our breath every year with weather,” Robert says. “Chill hours or late freeze, dry weather or hail storm. All kinds of things can get thrown at you in this business.”

But warm winters are especially vexing. When crops are lost to freezes and hail storms, the damage is immediate and obvious. The effects of a low-chill year vary wildly among varieties of peaches, between micro-climates within a single orchard, even from the base of the branch to its tip.

“It was very unusual,” says Robert, recalling how baffled he was by his orchards this spring. “We did not know what some of the peaches on the tree would do.” The sales team made promises they ended up unable to keep. And which 15 percent of your customers do you keep happy?

Just about the only thing peach farmers can do nowadays to try to make up missing chill hours is douse their trees with hydrogen cyanamide. This toxic growth regulator, commonly sold under the brand name Dormex, is thought to simulate chill hours. Growers selectively sprayed this year and got mixed results in terms of fruit, though it did seem to spur leaf growth for tree health. “It can help,” another peach grower, Lawton Pearson of Pearson Farms, told me, “but it’s not going to pull your ox out of the ditch.”

Dormex might address the immediate problem, but looking long-term raises larger questions. When do you begin to consider planting varieties of peaches that need fewer chill hours? When do you decide that Mr. Bob’s great-granddaughter will slip on her boots to go work an entirely different crop, one that might come to define Georgia in the 21st century?

‘This Weather Thing’

Farmers inhabit the world of weather. “We follow the weather tremendously,” Robert says.

Weather is not climate, as climate scientists say again and again. Weather is what you wear on a particular day; climate is your whole wardrobe. But people live day-by-day. They don’t go out and buy a wardrobe; they stand before an open bureau drawer on a single morning and decide which shirt to slip on. Or which variety of peach tree to plant.

As much as they care about the weather—and depend on the climate—most of the Georgia peach farmers I met recoiled at the phrase “climate change.” I found myself reluctant to reveal that I was writing for InsideClimate News, and I listened to farmers who danced around the language as much as I did.

“I’m not all agreeing with this weather thing,” Mr. Bob said.

The store on the Dickey Farm draws visitors to the orchards. Credit: Meera Subramanian
The store at Dickey Farms draws visitors to the orchards. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Whether they agree with it or not, though, the climate in their region is getting warmer. NOAA reported that this past winter was the fifth warmest in the eastern United States since record-keeping began 123 years ago, which is also when many of the peach farms of Georgia were just getting started. The peach growers point to other recent data to support their skepticism. Yes, they say, the previous two winters might have been warmer than usual—but the two winters before that were unusually cold. And the weather station in nearby Macon shows that while last winter was the fourth-warmest since 1948, it was outranked by a string of warm winters in the 1940s and ‘50s—strangely warm winters that growers refer to when confronted with the specter of climate change. They’ve seen it before, the growers argue, and they’ll see it again.

Finding Middle Ground

“Sometimes it comes in cycles. We don’t really talk about long-term weather changes,” Robert says. “We haven’t seen that yet, with peaches. Hopefully next year there will be enough chill.”

But the earth has been keeping accounts exponentially longer than humans. To a geologist, last century and the next are as good as the present. It’s only by peering through the long lens of paleoclimatic history that scientists get a clear picture of the scale of changes underway. They search for evidence amid the deep layers of planetary history, in the remains of glacial moraines and ice core samples.

And what they find is that there hasn’t been this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for about 3 million years, when it was so warm that oceans reached far inland compared to today and the world was a fundamentally different place.

Frustrations of Farming

In addition to being a fourth-generation peach farmer, Robert is also a second-term state representative, Republican, District 140.

We climb into his Chevy Tahoe, parked between the farm office and a shuttered cotton gin, across the street from the postcard-perfect brick general store his great-grandfather built, and head to his fields. As we drive from orchard to orchard, looking at trees that are green but bereft of fruit, he speaks a lament for rural Georgia. The environment that concerns him most is the business environment.

“Agriculture doesn’t have that large employment component that it used to,” he says, “so we’re looking for manufacturing jobs in the rural part of Georgia. But we don’t have the skilled workforce,” and companies won’t come unless they see that skill.

“We’re spending lots of money on technical education. Try to keep these kids in high school from dropping out. I could go on and on, but it’s very frustrating. Your better students are flocking to where the jobs are, which is in metro areas.” Georgia is made up of small counties. The majority of them (including Musella’s Crawford County) have been shrinking in population, Robert said, while the areas that grow have been primarily urban.

Robert Dickey and his son Lee share an office on their Georgia farm, where their family has been growing peaches for 120 years. Credit: Meera Subramanian
Robert Dickey and his son Lee share an office on their Georgia farm, where their family has been growing peaches for 120 years. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Robert’s own son Lee left the farm years ago to become a CPA and work finance for big firms in Atlanta. He relinquished a lucrative job last year to return to the family business—only to have his first peach harvest fail.

Generally, the people still living in towns like Musella are what Robert calls “the poor, unskilled and unemployed, and the elderly people.” And they don’t want the jobs Dickey Farms can offer. “I don’t want to browbeat good American people,” he says, but “American people aren’t gonna do outside hard labor. They’ll drive a tractor all day long or sit in the packing house and run a piece of equipment or drive a truck. But get out here and pick peaches or cut limbs, they just won’t do it.”

We pull into an orchard of Sun Prince peach trees, where Robert consults with a crew leader who’s been with Dickey Farms for 28 years. Originally from Mexico and now an American citizen, the crew leader is like one of the family, Robert tells me. The workers, who are on H-2A visas, speak Spanish as they push their collective body weight into moving a massive stack of pruned peach limbs, their work shirts solid with sweat in the midday heat.

Shark’s Tooth Prophecy

Even if average temperatures tick up by only one degree, the increasing fluctuations between extreme highs and lows that many climate models predict could gravely affect farmers of all crops. A recent study in the journal Science concluded that the Southeast will be hardest hit by climate change on multiple fronts.

“We figure the insect problems are going to be bad” if the winters get warmer, says Jeff Cook, the University of Georgia agricultural extension agent who serves the counties where the Dickeys have orchards. He has been called a “guru” to the local peach growers. “We’re worried about diseases getting worse, because a lot of things didn’t go completely dormant,” he says. But he easily recognizes how the growers could see the upside, too. “I think they’d just say we have a longer growing season. We can grow more stuff.”

Robert Dickey checks the peaches still growing in his family's orchard. Credit: Meera Subramanian
Robert Dickey checks the peaches still growing in his family’s orchard. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Meeting three generations of Robert Lees in the Deep South is a reminder that the past is never quite past in middle Georgia. But the past, they insist, does not predict the future. The Dickeys use the word “optimistic.” They use the word “hope.”

Quietly, they are adapting, innovating, recovering and hedging their bets. They are planting test plots of low-chill peaches and watching them closely. Peaches are immigrants to Georgia from their faraway origins in China.  They have always been on the move because of humans, though now human influences could be moving the crop in a less direct yet perhaps more profound way.

The Georgia peach farmers might not like the term “climate change,” but in a sense, the evidence of long-term change is right under their feet. While the peach is the state fruit, Georgia also has a state fossil: the shark’s tooth. The oceanic predators’ toothy remains can be found not just on the coast, but also more than 100 miles inland.

I stood with Jeff Cook in one of the Dickey peach orchards after we’d driven over the hump of Rich Hill, where the road rises 150 feet from the surrounding valley floor. He told me we stood on the fall line that cuts through Georgia, dividing the Piedmont that reaches toward the mountains from the coastal plain that once submerged half of Georgia under an ancient ocean. And he told me stories he’d heard from older farmers, of how amid the striated layers of red sand and limestone that lay bare the collision of two landscapes, they have unearthed shark’s teeth from the dirt.

As I listened to Cook, I imagined the peach farmer’s plight as a man standing on the fall line clutching two stones: the tooth-turned-to-stone in one hand and the stone fruit of a peach in the other. In my imagination, the two stones were separated only by the steady tick of time and change moving at an unknown pace.

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