The News Courier
— From staff, wire reports
A warm winter followed by a warmer-than-normal spring means much of the state’s peach crop is running weeks ahead of schedule.
Workers typically began picking fruit around mid-May in Chilton County, the heart of the state’s peach country between Montgomery and Birmingham. But Cindy Phillips of Durbin Farms says the crop is two to three weeks ahead of schedule this year because of the mild temperatures.
Wes Isom of Isom’s Orchard in Athens said North Alabama orchards tend to produce later than Clanton because temperatures are cooler here, but said his peaches will be ready for picking in seven to 10 days. In a normal year, he said picking would usually start around Memorial Day, which is still 20 days away.
“Some of the early peaches are low chillers, and as the season progresses, they’ll settle down some,” he said.
An Auburn University study says Alabama produces about 20 million pounds of peaches annually. A 2009 study valued the state’s peach crop at $10 million.
Peaches won’t be the only early fruit, however, as strawberries are also ahead of schedule. Isom said lower temperatures predicted later this week may speed up the harvesting process.
“If people want local strawberries, they need to get them pretty quick,” he said.
Lloyd D. Chapman, agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System office in Limestone County, said while fruits like peaches and strawberries are ahead of schedule, the early maturity will be less of a factor as the season progresses. He said the primary factor in crop successes for the remainder of the year will be rainfall.
“We’re behind on rainfall for the year, though I’m not sure what (this week’s) system will bring,” he said. “You can get water anytime you want to, though, if you have an irrigation system.”
How much rain will fall and how hot it will be in North Alabama this summer is still a bit of a mystery, according to Climatologist Chris White with the National Weather Service in Huntsville. Last week, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration declared the La Nina weather pattern to be over.
The pattern is generally thought to be to blame for drier conditions nationwide and warmer temperatures across the southeast.
Though NOAA declared an end to La Nina, White said a “lagging atmospheric effect” continues, though he described it as weak. Though it’s too early to tell what kind of summer to expect here, he said, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center favors above-normal temperatures.
Part of South Alabama and South Georgia are still experiencing severe drought conditions, while North Alabama was placed in D-1, or slight drought, last week. White said summertime temperatures will depend much on rainfall and ground moisture, which could be at a deficit.
“We had a warm spring and the vegetation came alive and extracted moisture from the soil,” he said, adding that April’s rainfall amount was below normal. “Our hottest year on record was 2007, and part of that was due to dry soil. Unless we get some decent rain, we may have very dry soil that heats us up.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.