Cut all the trees down? That's just peachy!

How do you live up to the nickname "Peach State?" By cutting down many of your peach trees, of course. It sounds illogical at best. But, taking a cue from Israeli growers, Georgia peach experts have found the reverse to be true.

There is no doubt Georgians identify themselves closely with the peach tree. Just driving south toward downtown Atlanta on Peachtree Road, a motorist passes Peachtree Avenue, Peachtree Way, and Peachtree Battle before arriving at the Peachtree Center office complex and the towering Peachtree Plaza Hotel.

But when it comes to the real thing, Georgia has lost seven of every eight peach trees it had in 1930. Various tree diseases, the rising cost of labor for hand picking, and urbanization, it seems, have taken their toll on the state's No. 1 fruit producers.

Now, however, research to spur new peach production is under way, based on an Israeli technique of cutting down trees after only one year's growth, when they are four to six feet high.

At first, this method sounds like an invitation for a production setback rather than an increase. But test harvests after using the new technique have actually yielded "a little more" than normal harvests, says University of Georgia horticulturalist Gary Couvillion.

Normally, peach trees are pruned in their first new years to shape them for future growth. The Israeli technique calls for skipping this pruning in favor of planting the trees closer together than in normal orchards so they will not reach full size.

Then, a year after planting, the short trees are cut down to a stump of less than foot high. Within a year, the tree has regrown to four to six feet and is ready for another harvest, says Dr. Couvillon.

The system has three advantages:

* Some tree diseases do not have time to attack. (In an alternate method, the stump and roots are removed every other year, reducing root disease risk as well.)

* Labor is cheaper. There is no pruning and, because the trees are shorter, pickers can more efficiently reach most peaches from the ground, avoiding time-consuming use of ladders. Mechanized harvesters being developed in Israel for the short trees reduce costs even further.

The Israeli harvester cuts the short trees down and lays them on a moving belt, where finger-like rakes gently separate the fruit from the branches. Otherwise, trees can be cut down with a power saw.

* Greater potential yields. Last July, horticulturalist Couvillion's research plots yielded 429, 38-pound cartons per acre of Red Haven peaches two inches or more in diameter. He compares this with the average yield from conventional orchards of 375 cartons from five- and six-year-old orchards.

"There is a lot we don't know," about the short-tree technique, and more research is needed, he cautions. He thinks commercial adaptation may be only two years away.

Already, he reports getting calls from a number of peach-tree growers interested in trying the system. Meanwhile, at the University of Wisconsin, Eldin Stang is studying the method for possible application in cold-climate states where peach trees currently do not grow. One idea under consideration: covering the short trees with plastic during winter months, a method deemed impractical with larger trees.

There are some potential pitfalls, however.

James Beutal, extension pomologist (fruit specialist) with the University of California at Davis, sees problems with the short-tree orchards.

With late-ripening peach varieties, Mr. Beautal says, the cut-down trees might not regrow enough before winter dormancy to produce fruit the next year. In the replanting alternative, there would be significant costs in working the soil. Finally, the use of a mechanical harvester might bruise the fruit more than hand-picking.

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