An unusually mild winter and early arrival of springlike temperatures may be welcomed by north Alabamians, but they are a cause for concern for some area peach growers.
At Reeves' Peach Farm in Morgan County, some varieties are blooming weeks earlier than normal, placing them at risk of frost damage if the warm temperatures don't hold.
Owner Mike Reeves said, depending on the variety, that most peaches typically don't bloom until mid- to late-March or early April. At his farm, many varieties were well into blooming, and some trees already had leaves sprouting March 9.
That could mean an earlier crop of peaches and strawberries for the farm.
Operations Manager David Reeves, Mike Reeves' son, said they are tentatively planning to open their roadside fruit stand April 1 for the first crop of strawberries, when they normally wouldn't open until April 15.
It also could mean trouble if the unusually warm temperatures don't hold. A sudden cold snap could damage the fragile blooms that would otherwise have grown into a peach. The more the blossoms develop, the more susceptible they are to the cold, David Reeves said.
Mike Reeves said the last frost of the year historically isn't until April 15 on average, so the coming weeks will determine the fate of this year's crop. The latest frost he could remember was April 13, 2007, when a sudden cold snap killed peaches and several other crops across north Alabama.
The farm didn't produce any peaches that year, David Reeves said.
"The next five weeks will tell that," Mike Reeves said when asked about the outlook for this year's crop. "We'd rather it stay above 30 degrees, and we'll get down close to it, but we can still handle some freezing."
To provide a buffer against the heightened risk of frost damage, David Reeves said, they are pruning the trees less than normal for this time of year.
Peach growers typically prune trees to reduce the number of buds on each tree, resulting in fewer peaches of better quality. By leaving some of the younger, heartier buds on the tree, they'll save some in case the more mature buds don't survive.
Even without the threat of frost, the unusually mild winter could be a problem for peach growers, because some varieties won't have received enough chilling hours to properly end their dormancy cycles. Chilling hours are when the temperature is between 32 and 45 degrees.
Too few chilling hours can result in several problems, including a long bloom period and varied fruit size and development, according to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
"We'll have a peach crop. It's just a matter of how good a crop it's going to be in terms of quality," said Chris Becker, Limestone County coordinator for the extension system.
With an average temperature of 62.4 degrees, last year was the second-warmest on record for the Tennessee Valley, according to John Christy, state climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Program at the University of Alabama Huntsville.
According to Mike Reeves, Morgan County got about 900 chilling hours over the winter, well below the 60-year average of 1,500 hours.
The warm winter forced the farm to spray an artificial growth regulator on some trees, David Reeves said. That's a common practice in warmer climates such as Chile, but it is rarely needed in north Alabama.
"We don't have to deal with this issue much in north Alabama," Mike Reeves said. "In fact, this is the first time I've ever thought about this."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the peach industry in Alabama was a $6 million industry in 2015, when the state produced more than 5,000 tons of peaches.