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For Georgia to stay the 'peach state,' farmers are trying to adapt to climate change

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Georgia is known as the Peach State. The fruit is plastered everywhere from the state's license plates to its I Voted stickers. But rising temperatures from climate change could threaten Georgia's most iconic crop. As WABE's Sam Gringlas reports, Georgia farmers are learning to adapt.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Down a dirt road lined with peach and pecan trees, Al Pearson hops out of his truck...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK DOOR SLAMMING)

GRINGLAS: ...And opens the door for his dog, Essie.

(SOUDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

AL PEARSON: Essie, whoa. Essie, everything's good.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRASS CRUNCHING)

GRINGLAS: He surveys a stretch of orchard his great-grandfather first planted some 140 years ago.

A PEARSON: It's just home. There's a magnetism about it.

GRINGLAS: Pearson's family has grown peaches in Georgia for five generations. Today, the trees are still harvested by hand. It's still a lot of stress and gamble, and visitors still love Pearson's peach ice cream.

A PEARSON: You're good? You like that ice cream?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes.

A PEARSON: You're not going to let it drip on anything, are you?

GRINGLAS: Some things have changed, though.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEACHES THUDDING)

GRINGLAS: In the packing house, an optical sorter snaps images of every peach rolling down the conveyor belt, directing them to just the right packaging and customer. But now Georgia peach farmers may face a new disruption - climate change. Pearson says avoiding the conversation is impossible.

A PEARSON: I'm not a climatologist, but I am a farmer. And the climate does affect us. It's not something that I can see every day.

GRINGLAS: Still, scientists warn that growers should expect warmer winters with fewer chill hours. That's the number of hours where the temperature drops below 45 degrees. Peaches and some other fruit trees need a minimum number of them to fruit, says Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia.

PAM KNOX: We know for sure winters are getting warmer, and there's no other explanation that there can be other than human-caused global warming.

GRINGLAS: Knox says climate data show chill hours have already been trending downward in Georgia. Though some farmers planning for the future may swap crops...

KNOX: Peaches are not going to go away in Georgia. It's not like Georgia's someday going to become the No Peach State.

GRINGLAS: That's because horticulturists are breeding new varieties that require fewer chill hours.

DARIO CHAVEZ: You want to follow me and we can go to the orchard?

GRINGLAS: Yeah. Yeah, sure.

Horticulturist Dario Chavez is testing new peach varieties at a University of Georgia experimental station. He believes new varieties can help sustain Georgia's peach-growing tradition. While some might be skeptical about climate change affecting their crops, Chavez says many growers he talks to are already adapting.

CHAVEZ: Thirty, 40 years ago, you used to grow 1,000 chill hour cultivars. I say, do you grow those now? And they probably say no.

GRINGLAS: Producing a new variety isn't easy. A new breed may require fewer chill hours, but if it blooms too early, it's vulnerable to late frosts. There are other considerations, too, like disease, humidity or drought. It can be a decade-long investment.

LAWTON PEARSON: Every variety is like a child. It takes years to figure them out.

GRINGLAS: At Pearson Farm, Al Pearson's son, Lawton, has already been trying new varieties. He's anticipating many changes the farm may have to adapt to in the future, including the climate. Today, two peach varieties grown by Pearson's great-great-grandfather are still in production, the Belle of Georgia and the Elberta. Climatologist Pam Knox estimates if trends persist, those varieties likely won't be tenable here by mid-century. Lawton Pearson is undaunted.

L PEARSON: We've got to keep changing as the environment, as everything else changes.

GRINGLAS: It's a challenge Pearson is ready to take on. He says they don't have a choice. For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Fort Valley, Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.

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