Archived Story

Freeze damages peach crop—despite farmers’ efforts

Published 4:21pm Thursday, March 27, 2014

As temperatures dropped below freezing Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, at least three Chilton County helicopters hovered over 40 acres of peach orchards to protect them from the cold.

“Our job was to protect the peaches from freezing,” Ken Gilliland with B&G Flying Service in Clanton said on Wednesday. “There were four helicopters total but three of them were from Chilton County, and we hovered 20 feet above the trees to keep the air stirred up so the cooler temperatures would not reach the peaches.”

Gilliland said dozens of individuals including peach farmers worked throughout the early morning hours to keep the peach crops from freezing.

“It was a long night,” Gilliland said. “We started flying at 4 a.m. and we continuously flew over the peach orchards until 7 a.m.”

Gilliland explained the purpose of the helicopters flying overhead was to produce wind from the helicopter blades to keep the trees dry.

Wind machines were stationed on the ground as well as burning wood and coal to keep the peach blossoms warm.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand what kind of work goes into making sure these peach orchards are protected,” Gilliland said. “We set everything up we would need for Wednesday morning around 5 or 6 p.m. on Tuesday and then started working to keep everything warm as the temperatures continued to drop in the early morning hours.”

Peach trees are vulnerable to cold once they’ve begun to produce fruit.

Jim Pitts with the Chilton Research and Extension Center said on Thursday that most peach farmers throughout Chilton County “took a hit” from Wednesday’s morning temperatures.

“We are still trying to determine how bad it is,” Pitts said. “It was surprising to all of us. We just didn’t know leading into it if freezing temperatures would be a beneficial thing or not. Looking at the orchards now, I have heard folks say that the damage was surprising.”

Pitts said the official temperature reading for Chilton County on Wednesday morning was 27 degrees.

“Those who had orchards in higher elevations were not as cold,” Pitts said. “The winds were pretty calm, and when the winds are calm you can get that break in temperature because of the cold air going to the lowest spot.”

Pitt said the peach orchards with higher elevations of 700-800 feet could have not received as much damage or the various techniques including the helicopters or wind machines.

“It will take a little bit of time to figure out how everything turned out from the freeze,” Pitts said. “Everyone took the temperatures seriously and worked hard to try to prevent damage to the crops.”

Gilliland said the Chilton County Airport served as a valuable fuel resource for the helicopters as fuel trucks were on site to provide fuel for the helicopters to stay overhead.

“The sunshine is out and everything has warmed up, so hopefully everything will be OK,” Gilliland said. “We were happy to help in what way we could, and now we are just hoping temperatures will stay above freezing.”

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