Farmers bouncing back from terrible 2016 peach season

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 29, 2017, by Domenic Poli

Area farmers say peaches are back in full force this year, a complete turnaround from the St. Valentine’s Day massacre of 2016 that left growers without a bud to speak of.

Temperatures approached an unseasonable 60 degrees leading up to Feb. 14, before dropping to minus 20 overnight, killing peach buds throughout the Northeast. Farms in this area lost tens of thousands of dollars worth of peaches, but an abundance of the crop has brought back consumers who had to go without the fuzzy stone fruits last year.

“One of the things I really love about working here is how tuned-in people in this valley are to getting their food from local farmers,” said Leslie Harris, in her second year as farm manager at Quonquont Farm in Whately. She also theorized about what doomed last year’s crop.

“I think the warm weather sort of encouraged the trees to start thinking about waking up, only to get zapped by the super-cold weather,” she said. “Peach trees don’t like the super-cold weather, anyway, but that just finished them off. I think that’s true of most of the orchards that I’ve talked to. Most of us (farmers) never got a blossom.”

Harris said Quonquont Farm is exclusively a pick-your-own location with three fruit crops — peaches, apples and blueberries. And sales are up this year.

“It has been, so far, a banner year for all three crops,” she said. “It’s been really terrific.”

However, she explained, one great year doesn’t magically compensate for all the losses of the previous one.

“Peaches are our biggest cash crop and to lose that means we lost more than a third of our income last year,” she said. “You don’t necessarily make up for it in the following year. You have to sort of roll with it.”

The same is true at Clarkdale Fruit Farm on Upper Road in Deerfield.

“We’re very happy to have an excellent crop so far this year. Especially after last year, when we had no peaches and a very light apple crop,” said co-owner Ben Clark. “Our customers are very happy to have the fresh peaches that everybody missed out on last year.”

Clark credits good pollination, lack of extreme cold, and good weather during bloom time in the spring for the healthy peaches, which he said have great flavor and appearance. He said the hot weather has helped the natural sugars develop.

“We’re very fortunate. We’re a multigenerational farm and we have multigenerational customers,” he said. “We have seen people come out in droves for peaches.”

Clark predicts he will sell 1,500 bushels of peaches and 8,000 bushels of apples this year, with more apples going into ciders. He said he has 50 varieties of yellow- and white-flesh peaches on 9 acres and more than 60 varieties of apples spanning 25 acres.

Well rested

But the peach prosperity goes beyond Deerfield. Albert “Chip” Hager, owner of Hager’s Farm Market on the Mohawk Trail in Shelburne, said his peach trees must be well rested from not doing any work last year.

“This year’s been great. We have a tremendous crop of peaches,” he said. “If anything, there’s so many that we’ve had to knock a lot off because there was more than the trees could handle. … But I’d rather do that anytime than have nothing.”

Hager, who said he took over the farm six summers ago, said customers are constantly raving about the flavor of his 10 varieties of peaches. He also said the apples are looking good, though most people won’t think about apples for another month or so.

Jordan Gallerani of Ashfield bought a tiny basket of peaches from Hager Farm Market on Tuesday morning. He said he is glad peaches are back, having settled for nectarines last year.

“I stop here for corn and stuff when I’m shopping (in Greenfield),” he said after making his purchase. “There’s not a lot of stores in Ashfield.”

At Apex Orchards in Shelburne, 20-year owner Tim Smith said he is yielding a great crop this year, though the farm hasn’t truly recovered from 2016’s hardships. He said the sudden cold killed 500 to 600 peach and apricot trees that need to be replaced. However, he said he has so far produced roughly 2,000 20-pound boxes of peaches.

“It definitely boosts everybody’s morale to have a crop. No two ways about that,” Smith said. “It’ll be a number of years to recover financially from the losses last year.”

Though the farm has had peaches since the 1920s, this is the first year Apex has a pick-your-own peaches option, which is held every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

Smith said he grows 25 varieties of peaches on 6 acres and 40 varieties of apples on 30 acres. The farm has been in his family since 1828.

“The customers are really enjoying peaches this year, after having nothing last year, and we certainly appreciate them coming out for everything, too,” he said.