By Doug Graves
Growers of peaches can’t blame insects for the low numbers of the fruit this summer. All fingers point to the cold spells this past winter.
Growers from Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan and Illinois report that all things are well with their apples, blueberries, blackberries and grapes. Their peaches? Well, not so peachy.
Two orchards in southern Illinois say their peach crops this year are in the pits, and inclement weather is to blame.
“We had a hard freeze back around Christmas,” said Parker Flamm, farm manager at Flamm Orchards in Cobden, Ill. “We had minus-4 here on the farm. We had a lot more damage than we anticipated.”
Flamm said they lost nearly 95 percent of their peach crop.
“It’s our largest loss since 2007,” Flamm added. “We will have enough for our retail roadside stand but as far as our wholesale business, it’s pretty much wiped out, which is where most of our peach sales are at. We have peaches in the store right now, but our crop is so hit and miss.”
And Flamm Orchards isn’t alone.
“This year’s peach crop isn’t very good,” said Sarah Lipe, owner of Lipe Orchards in Carbondale, Ill. “We had some below-zero weather around Christmas time last year that did a lot of damage. February was mild, March was up and down, so that did a lot of damage.”
Many of the trees at Lipe Orchards had few to no peaches. “There aren’t very many peaches. If people find peaches, they better snatch them up when they can because we won’t have peaches all of the time,” Lipe said.
Growing peaches in northwest Ohio can be a challenge, but Jeff MacQueen, president of MacQueens Orchards in Holland, invested in a fan to protect his 10 acres of peaches. But even with a fan his crop is 50 percent of what they had planned.
“On a calm still night the cold starts to settle down so we always try to keep the air moving,” MacQueen said. “We got fans and we rent big fans that we set up in the orchard.”
One farm in northwest Ohio opted out of selling peaches because they’re costly to produce. Martha Mora, the co-owner of Johnston Fruit Farms in Swanton, said peaches have been trouble for some time, so they’ve had to rethink their planting strategy to protect their bottom line.
“We took our peaches out five years ago because more often than not we did not end up with a crop,” Mora said. “Either it became too cold in the winter and buds got frozen, or you had buds but they got nipped in the bud, as they say.”
Peaches at the farm have been replaced with flowers, raspberries and blueberries.
Kentucky consumes more peaches than it produces, thus providing opportunities for additional peach production within the state. Peach acreage in Kentucky declined from 800 acres in 1992 to roughly 500 acres in 2017.
Kentucky’s climate for growing peaches is both good and bad. One of its good points is the intense sunshine, which builds carbohydrates and helps produce high-quality fruit. And, rainfall in the state is ideal for peaches. On the down side, the unpredictable winters can play havoc with the fruit’s hardiness. The western half of the state produces the best peaches.
In Georgia (a.k.a. The Peach State), growers there lost more than 90 percent of this year’s crop after abnormally warm weather this winter and late-season freeze. Georgia normally produces more than 130 million pounds of peaches annually, according to Dario Chavez, an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia.
“Crops like peaches require a certain number of ‘chill hours,’ ranging between 32 degrees and 45 degrees,” Chavez said. “The cold allows the plants to go into dormancy, much like people need sleep. Different varieties of peaches require different number of chill hours, and this year the state didn’t have enough cold hours for many varieties that were planted.”
According to Chavez, most commercial growers plant between 40 and 60 varieties of peaches, all with different temperature requirements to allow for different ripening times for the plants. Growers diversify their crops so they can ship as each variety of peach ripens. This growing scheme allows for growers to elongate the season of fresh peaches shipped to consumers.
California produced 19 times as many peaches as Georgia, and South Carolina produced 2.5 times as many. Pennsylvania, Colorado and Michigan round out the top six. Michigan’s cold climate makes the state’s peach season shorter than most. However, Michigan still produces a significant number of peaches every year. The harvest season for Michigan’s peaches starts in mid to late July and wraps up around the end of September. Roughly 6,800 acres of peaches are found in the state. The Red Haven peach is the peach of choice in Michigan, with new varieties like Michigan Flamin’ Fury and Stellar peach gaining popularity.