Surviving early spring freezing temperatures, torrential rains, flooding, high winds and tornados, growers of Georgia-grown peaches, melons and blueberries were poised to start another spring season.

Harvesting of blueberries normally starts in mid- to late April while the state’s signature peach crop begins packing in mid-May, with cantaloupe pickings expected to begin in late May. Growers begin watermelon harvesting in mid-June.

Rebounding after two successive below-average production years, Georgia peach packers this spring are looking forward to a more typical production year.

Spring freezes took out nearly all of their crops in 2007 and more than half of their crops last season.

“It’s been three years since we have had a decent crop,” said Al Pearson Jr., president and managing partner of Pearson Farm, Fort Valley, Ga. “This year, we have an adequate crop set. It’s not a real big thinning job, but we have to thin all of the trees, which tells me we should have a decent crop of fruit. I think we as a state are going to be a good and dependable supplier.”

Pearson in late April said he didn’t see much disease and that everything appeared to be on track for a May 15 normal start.

Heavier than normal spring rains should also help the crop’s sizings, said Duke Lane III, vice president of sales with the Fort Valley-based Lane Southern Orchards.

“This season’s sizings should be really good,” he said in late April. “The amount of dormant chill hours we have had, which was tremendous, will serve us well with overall quality. It’s going to be a good year with good eating and large volumes of southern peaches.”

Though the severe weather may have harmed some isolated trees by causing burning, Lane said the threatening weather didn’t appear to have harmed his trees.

Last season, prices opened $18-22 for early fruit, and then declined as the season moved on, Lane said. He said prices normally start in that range.

Lane said he expects to pack close to 700,000 25-pound cartons this season, up from the 150,000 cartons it packed last year.

Georgia, the third largest fresh-producing peach state, normally packs 3.2 million cartons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Battling rainy weather, Georgia grower-shippers in late April were finishing watermelon plantings.

An April 9 freeze scared growers, as the soaked fields prevented them from entering their fields to spray to protect their plants from freeze damage. The temperatures, however, didn’t fall low enough to cause damage, said Greg Leger, president and partner in Leger & Son Inc., Cordele, Ga.

“If the weather straightens out, we will be fine in Georgia,” he said in late April.

Flooding caused difficulties because growers couldn’t replant when the fields still had standing water, Leger said.

Leger said the torrential rains and strong winds could cut Georgia acreage by 15%, but that the deal should provide sufficient supplies if the growing regions aren’t hit by additional unfavorable weather.

Melon harvesting for Leger is expected to start around June 10.

Brian Arrigo, president of Southern Corporate Packers Inc., Immokalee, Fla., said most of his Milan, Ga., production survived the harsh weather.

“Some of the low spots may have flooded, but we had held off on planting in most of the farms,” he said. “Everything made it through there fine.”

Arrigo said he expects his Georgia production to begin later than normal in mid-June after finishing his northern Florida deal.

Leger said he expects a smooth transition from Florida growing regions to Georgia’s.

He characterized last season as strong.

Though the deal at times got a little long on fruit, Leger said prices adjusted and kept product flowing, compared to several years ago when shippers tried to hold prices at 20 cents per pound, and slowed movement.

In early April, during the start of Florida’s watermelon deal, Leger quoted 26-28 cents per-pound for cartons of red flesh seedless.

Leger plans to pack 600 loads of 58 bins, or 34,800 bins, this season from Georgia.

Georgia’s watermelon season normally starts in Cordele June 10 and runs through after July 4.

On cantaloupe, Daniel Whittles, director of marketing and product development for Rosemont Farms Corp., Boca Raton, Fla., which markets for Tifton, Ga.-based Lewis Taylor Farms Inc., said he expects to have a strong athena deal.

“With all of the rain they have had up there, everyone with their little segment of the marketplace is trying to figure out if they will make it through,” he said in late April. “It would be impossible to think yields won’t be impacted. We hope this year to see ample amounts of fairly decent and big-sized fruit early on in the deal.”

Because of planting delays, Whittles said Rosemont’s production could be a week or so behind schedule, but otherwise should produce a strong season. He said his production appears to be in good shape as partner Lewis Taylor Farms planted most of its early melons on high ground.

Whittles said he expects to begin pickings around May 25 with peak production hitting June 10 through early July.

In 2008, Georgia produced 1,238 cwt. of cantaloupe from 4,500 acres, down from 2007’s 1,392 cwt. from 4,800 acres, but much higher than 2006’s 870 cwt. from 5,800 acres, according to the USDA.

Winter freezes that damaged 20% of the state’s buds caused a later-than- normal Georgia blueberry deal.

The deal, which normally begins pickings in mid-April on its early deal, started a week later than normal and was expected to hit promotable volumes in early and mid-May.

Growers and packers say they expect Georgia to begin pickings a week or two later than normal in terms of significant volume.

Georgia has two blueberry seasons. The early season normally begins in mid-April and runs through late May, while the later deal starts by Memorial Day and goes through July 4.

Keith Mixon, president and chief executive officer of SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., said freeze damage wasn’t as devastating as earlier believed.

“What shocked me the most when I was there was that the Georgia crop, though it’s a little lighter by bush versus last year, the quality should be fantastic,” he said in late April. “The sizing and the bush health are there. What we have lost in crop size, we have gained in quality and all parts of quality that make for size and appearance.”

Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC began its Georgia pickings in light quantities by picking from some of its leader berries off the bushes April 19.  The berries marketer, which has Georgia grower members in Alma, Manor, Baxley, Waycross and Valdosta, planned to have promotable volume for loading May 4-18. 

“The crop is reduced some but the quality is looking good out in the field, so we look forward to a good season with Georgia blueberries,” said Mario Flores, Naturipe’s director of blueberry product management. “Though Georgia did see some reduction, there is still plenty of fruit out there to promote early to mid-May out of Georgia. In early to mid-June, there will be volumes for promotions on pints and larger.”

Mixon in late April, during Florida’s principal seasonal production, characterized prices as higher than last year. He quoted prices exceeding $24 for flats of 12 4.4-oz cups with lids medium-large from central Florida.

Mixon said he expects Florida’s northern and southern production to finish on time by May 15.

SunnyRidge plans to ship 10 million pounds of the estimated 25 million pounds Georgia growers expect to ship fresh this season.