Credit: Jason Vorhees, The Telegraph
Georgia peach farmers pursuing solutions to crop losses caused by climate change
Middle Georgia’s peach growers, who have been devastated by a harvest ruined by bad weather, have little in the way of financial recourse to offset their losses.
The USDA’s recent declaration that the spring freezes amounted to a natural disaster unlocked some relief in the form of disaster assistance loans for farmers.
But this is a short-term remedy, only applicable to this year’s losses — and scientists say the factors that caused the crop failure, which include steadily increasing winter temperatures caused by climate change, are only going to get worse.
Some farmers and agribusiness advocates see an opportunity for longer-term help in the upcoming Farm Bill, a wide-ranging package of congressional agricultural legislation that is up for its periodic five-year renewal this fall.
Meanwhile, the state’s agricultural leaders are continuously pursuing research into more resilient peach varieties as well as technologies to help produce withstand the changing weather conditions — but say more funding is needed.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO FIX CROP INSURANCE
Among the programs governed by the Farm Bill is the Federal Crop Insurance Program, a program with origins in the New Deal that is intended to compensate farmers for crops lost due to circumstances beyond their control.
But it’s primarily geared toward the needs of growers of row crops that are grown at a much larger scale than fruit and vegetables, which are categorized as “specialty crops.”
Will Bentley, president of the Macon-based Georgia Agribusiness Council, told the Telegraph that crop insurance, in its current form, is an inadequate solution to the woes of those who grow specialty crops like peaches.
In May, Bentley traveled to D.C. with a delegation of Georgia elected officials including Rep. Dickey and Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper to lobby for reforms in this year’s Farm Bill that would assist the state’s farmers.
“What we were in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago advocating for was to include specialty crops in the upcoming Farm Bill,” he told the Telegraph.
Bentley said the need for better crop insurance is a recent development caused by the declining profitability of fruits and vegetables. “In years past, most fruit and vegetables had enough margin in them that they didn’t need to have any type of protection in the Farm Bill,” he said.
Crop insurance policies for specialty crops are generally written using the available data on a given crop’s recent historical performance in the grower’s local region.
So for those growers that do purchase crop insurance, a string of recent bad harvests means their payout will be minimal.
“Their insurance is based on an average of what they produce every year, and, with this having happened several years out of the last 10, that’s impacted their averages,” said Bentley. “So instead of getting insurance coverage on a full crop, they’re already insuring on a much lower average crop.”
In recent years, Georgia peach farmers’ crop yields have been affected by increasingly warm winters, which reduce the number of “chill hours” below 45 degrees peaches need exposure to during their dormancy, and late spring frosts, which kill off the peaches that have been lured out of dormancy by the unseasonable winter warmth.
“For peaches, what they do is they take the production average of the last five years, and then that’s the main calculation that they use to formulate what your insurance will cover,” Dickey said. “So if you had several bad years in a row, now, the value of what you have insured has gone down — and especially, let’s say you have a natural disaster. In the last five or six years, we’ve had two hurricanes.”
The solution Bentley hopes will be legislated is for a national average of market prices to be used as the reference price for specialty crops, rather than local (and therefore variable) averages.
Billy Hackett, a policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a nonprofit which has advocated for crop insurance reform, said climate change heightens the challenges for small farmers unable to access affordable insurance.
“In the face of growing floods and growing droughts and sudden frosts and hurricanes that are moving further and further north, including into Georgia, it’s vital that all of our farmers have access to a safety net to protect them against the worst of the losses we only expect to get worse,” Hackett said. “And so that’s where there’s a real opportunity in this Farm Bill to expand that access.”
RESEARCH IS UNDERWAY
Farmers across Georgia, in collaboration with the cooperative extension programs at institutions like UGA and Fort Valley State University, are continuously adapting, innovating and researching solutions to the dilemmas of a changing agricultural environment.
State Rep. Robert Dickey said research is underway into developing later-blooming and more cold-hardy peach varieties to withstand the spring frosts partially responsible for the recent crop losses.
Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at UGA, said some farmers are also adapting to the warming winters by choosing peach varieties that “require fewer chill hours — but that does make them more vulnerable to these frosts.”
One solution to this dilemma that is being researched is to spray the peaches with cellulose products to delay their coming out of dormancy.
“It’s like spraying paper pulp on the trees and that acts basically like an insulator, and that protects them to some extent from the frost,” Knox said.
In his role in the state House’s leadership, Dickey said he had sought funding for research into peach farming solutions.
“I had some money in our budget this year and the governor took it out,” he said. “So I’m still trying to convince our legislature to try to invest with some research for that. [It’s] very vital to a lot of our crops. The UGA does a lot of research work on other commodities, and we just need a little bit more on peaches.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Telegraph.