Northeast is in for peachy summer
It has been a year since the peach crop in the northeastern United States hit the pits. But growers and agricultural experts are expecting a healthy rebound in 2017.
Peach orchards across the region have come alive with pink blossoms. It could be a bumper harvest. Of course, the weather is very important.
"Everything just dialed in this year," said Al Caggiano. He is co-owner of Sunny Slope Orchards. The orchards are in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Sunny Slope is a third-generation family farm. It has about 500 acres of peach trees.
Two weather anomalies combined to devastate last year's Northeast harvest, experts said.
First, the crops in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York were pretty much wiped out. Growers dubbed it the Valentine's Day Massacre. Temperatures dropped below zero in many areas on Feb. 14. That is unusually cold even by normal winter standards. The low temperature killed the flower buds.
"There was no peach crop in Massachusetts last year," said Jon Clements. He is a fruit specialist. He is connected to the University of Massachusetts Extension.
Then, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were hit by an unexpected cold spell last April.
New Jersey is the nation's fourth-largest peach grower. It falls behind California. It alone grows nearly three-quarters of the U.S. crop. South Carolina is the second largest grower. And Georgia is the third largest.
New Jersey grew nearly 22,000 tons in 2015. The U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics service has predicted just 14,000 tons grew last year.
Sunny Slope got hit by a "double whammy," said Caggiano. He estimated that the farm's peach harvest was down about 50 percent last year. They were hit with the April cold. They also had a localized hail storm in July. It further damaged the peaches.
But so far this season, the weather has aligned perfectly.
"We had a mild winter. And we actually bloomed right on time the first or second week of April," Caggiano said. "Then we had a 10-day period with no real cold temperatures during bloom."
In Massachusetts, the 2015 peach crop was good. Clements said it wasn't even worth counting last year.
Connecticut's harvest was down 90 to 95 percent last year over 2015. This is according to some estimates.
Frank Carlson runs Carlson Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts. He called last year a massacre.
"On Valentine's Day, when it went below zero, we lost every bud on every tree," he said. "We didn't see one peach in 25 acres. It was a wipeout."
This year, things are looking up.
"We just experienced a beautiful bloom. So we are anticipating a pretty decent crop," Carlson said. He hopes to match the roughly 200,000 pounds he harvested in 2015.
Peaches are typically harvested starting in July. They are the first money crop of the year. Peaches play a critical role in the financial health of any fruit grower, said John Lebeaux. He is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
Farmers took a hard financial hit last season. For example, the crop in Massachusetts in 2015 was valued at about $3.4 million. Although final USDA numbers for 2016 aren't out yet, UMass' Clements estimates it was just a tiny fraction of that last year.
The failed peach crop cost Carlson Orchards tens of thousands of dollars. Insurance makes up just a fraction of that, Carlson said.
Like everything in farming, the peach harvest depends on the whims of the weather. So nobody's feeling too fuzzy about the peach harvest quite yet.
When it comes to the weather, Carlson said, "there's a lot of ifs, ands or buts."