Life's a peach — if you're lucky

Third generation fruit farmer Ben Wenk is always hype about peaches, but this year he’s extra excited. This year, he almost didn’t have a peach crop at all.

“Their very existence was in jeopardy for weeks,” he says, referring to the yellow peaches he’ll introduce at Headhouse Market this weekend, “and in serious doubt for several more.”

Wenk, who with his family runs Three Springs Fruit Farm in Aspers, Pa., wasn’t the only farmer stricken with peach fear this year.

An unseasonably warm February and March encouraged premature buds, but then early April temps dipped into the teens, killing many of those young blossoms before they had a chance to mature. Whether the abnormal fluctuations were caused by El Niño or climate change or a combination of both, they made for a fruit farmers’ nightmare. Several Southeast Pennsylvania farmers said it was the least-crop-friendly spring weather pattern they’d seen in more than two decades.

The temperature tango — described by one grower as “March’s weather in April and April’s weather in March” — wreaked havoc on stone fruits across the region. With regard to peaches, the upper Northeast U.S. was hit especially hard, and is expected to experience a major shortage this year.

More than 60 percent of the peaches sold in this country do come from California, with South Carolina a distant second and Georgia following third. Those states didn’t experience the same kind of shortage, so regular supermarkets should be able to stock up just fine. However, it’s more expensive for Northeast vendors to ship in the fragile produce from faraway states, and combined with increased demand, peach prices may well be higher than normal at many checkout counters throughout the summer.

If you hold out for the deliciousness and sustainability of local peaches bought at farmers markets, it’s a different story. Happily, for Philadelphians, it doesn’t look to be a sad one.

Three Springs 2016 peach crop, looking good
Three Springs 2016 peach crop, looking good

In the fertile area surrounding Philly, peach orchards were much luckier than their counterparts in New York and New England. While the wacky weather did threaten their existence, most production managers here report that crops were not decimated. Though conditions and yields were far from optimum, most agree, they ended up with enough quality supply that the average farmstand customer probably won’t even notice a difference.

“We’re probably not taking on new business this year,” says Wenk, whose Adams County farm delivers to more than 50 wholesale accounts, in addition to vending at a couple dozen farmers markets. He estimates 2016 shortages at 5 to 15 percent “across the board.”

That’s much better than he thought it might have been on the morning of April 9, when he awoke to a shell-shocking mercury reading of just 19 degrees (the average low for that date is around 42, and it rarely dips below 32).

Though the the late freeze crystallized and killed nearly half the pink buds perched on Three Springs’ peach trees, culling is a regular step in cultivation, Wenk explains. A “nice crop” is actually grown from just 20 percent of the blossoms a tree will make — the other 80 percent plucked off manually so the plant can concentrate its full photosynthetic energy on the remaining fifth.

North Star Orchard co-owner Lisa Kerschner concurs. “In normal non-freeze years we have to do a lot of hand-thinning of peaches because the trees set too many fruits,” she says. “The freezes did some of that thinning for us, essentially.”

North Star Orchard owners were thrilled when peaches actually began growing this year
North Star Orchard owners were thrilled when peaches actually began growing this year Credit: North Star Orchard

While the amounts of cherries and plums sold by her Chester County farm won’t be anything near normal, the peach crop “shouldn’t be too far off target.”

Another reason the April 9 chill wasn’t as catastrophic as it might have been is due to something called “hardening.” When buds and blossoms are exposed to multiple cold weather events, their ability to survive increases, and there were at least three 28-degree nights leading up to the 19-degree dip.

“Had we not had multiple ‘brushes with death,’ the buds might not have been strong enough to withstand” that last epic plunge, Wenk says. “It’s like the plants recognize the poor weather and shift additional resources to protect the flower buds.”

Because a couple of degrees in temperature can make a big difference, even small changes in elevation can cause yields to vary widely from farm to farm, or within a single estate. Stuart Constable, production manager at West Chester’s Highland Orchards, believes the fact that his peach trees are planted mostly along ridges helped save this year’s crop.

“Cold air settles in the valleys,” he says, revealing that his trees planted further down didn’t produce nearly as much fruit as those at the tops of the hills. In general, he calls this year’s peach output “not the best, but fairly good.”

Like several other Southeast Pa. farms, Highland Orchards did spray its blossoms with fertilizer on days before big temp drops were predicted. Growers also sometimes hire helicopters to fly low over fields to push warmer air down, or — if warmth simply doesn’t exist — light fires between tree rows to create their own. In the end, Constable notes, there’s not all that much action that can be taken.

“We’ll just hope for next year to be a better year,” he says.

“That’s what farmers do.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...