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Food and Drink

Peach season is the pits

Bitter cold wiped out most of the peach crop in Windham County — even in the ‘banana belt’

BRATTLEBORO—Anyone looking forward to local peaches will likely wait until next year: Area orchards report an almost total peach crop failure this fall.

Zeke Goodband, fruit-tree orchardist and orchard manager at Dummerston’s Scott Farm, says the “bitterly cold winter” of 2013-14 is to blame.

Temperatures typically begin creeping upward in late winter, when inside seemingly dormant trees, delicate buds form, awaiting the chance to blossom into fragrant flowers, then delicious fruit.

This year, however, southeastern Vermont experienced extreme cold during this crucial time for fruit-tree development.

Read Miller of Dwight Miller & Son Farm describes the conditions leading to this year’s peach crop demise: “At 16 degrees below zero [Fahrenheit], the flower buds freeze. Even though we’re in Vermont’s ‘banana belt’, which is six miles into the state’s border from Bennington and Guilford, it was too cold. I knew the crop was gone without even doing the branch dissection.”

The line separating the “banana belt” from the bordering colder regions is so specific that Miller, whose farm is “a mile long” and straddles the divide, doesn’t even bother planting peach trees on the north end of his land.

Miller was able to harvest some peaches this year, but he stressed how few survived: “Some, as in, I could name them.”

Read Miller has grown peaches for 40 years, and his family’s farm “has been growing peaches since the Civil War,” he says. While he reports the existence of some peach varieties whose fruit can survive colder temperatures, these same trees’ buds might not survive a spring frost, so they aren’t worth the gamble.

Still, Miller’s research continues: “We’re developing some [hardier] in-house varieties with seeds that have bred asexually. One [in particular] looks good.”

Goodband believes locals have “gotten spoiled” lately; with relatively mild winters, the yearly peach crop has flourished in recent seasons.

“We expect peach crops every year,” Goodband says, describing this harvest as “sort of what it was like [up until] 20 years ago. Before then, every few years we’d have a decent peach crop.”

Miller remembers “one reduction due to a spring frost in the 1970s, but it’s very rare.”

There is still at least one local farm reporting that they have peaches.

Nancy Miller of Cortland Hill Orchard in West Brattleboro said that “we have some peaches. Nothing like previous years, but we do have peaches, and they are as big as grapefruits and very juicy.”

Juicier and local

Anyone who performs a side-by-side taste comparison between a locally grown peach and its store-bought counterpart immediately knows the difference: flavor and juiciness.

“Our peaches are juicier than the ones you find in the grocery store,” Miller explains. “It’s not because we do anything special to our trees. It’s because our peaches are direct-to-customer, and are tree-ripened.”

Of the few things one can count on in this world, here is one certainty: peaches grown outside of this immediate area are not tree-ripened. The vagaries of distribution trump quality.

The prunus Persica is a delicate fruit. Its skin can’t retain moisture over a long period. Anyone who has neglected to eat a fresh peach for a few days knows what happens: it dries out and gets all wrinkly. And a ripe peach has a lot of moisture to lose.

Larger farms sometimes apply a thin layer of edible wax to the skin of fruits (and vegetables) to help them retain moisture during the journey of distribution, but that’s not an option with peaches. And even unripe, peaches also bruise easily.

The produce industry’s solution to these problems: pick peaches well before they are ripe. Harder peaches are hardier peaches, and they travel with far less damage.

But a peach picked before its time has had its ripening process arrested indefinitely: it will never ripen. It will only rot.

Other crops fare better

Other crops are doing well this year.

Ask any gardener about zucchini. Nothing will stop the zucchini. Upon arriving home from even the shortest errand-running excursion this time of year, locals often find a pile of “zucchini bats” left on their doorstep, like the swaddled, orphaned infants of yore (and cartoons).

At Walker Farm, Jan Spanierman explains how, even in late summer, the farm still harvests strawberries: “We plant the Seacrest strawberry variety, which is ever-bearing, not June-bearing. It’s a lower yield but a longer season.”

Goodband reports his sweet, Italian-style plums are excellent, area leafy-greens are looking good, and the “sunny days and cool nights” bode well for apples, which Scott Farm has already begun harvesting. He anticipates an excellent “pick-your-own” season, and encourages locals to “get out this fall with your friends and family, to all the orchards in the area.”

Miller says the blueberry season is “nice” this year, as is the spinach crop. Last year’s “extra-large” apple crop inspired Miller Farm to make cider vinegar, which has done well for them, and they have a huge inventory of the product.

His advice to fledgling farmers disappointed by this year’s peach crop: “A diversified farm is key. Don’t let adversity ruin your psyche... There will be a next year. Don’t let it eat you up. Just go do something else.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #270 (Wednesday, September 3, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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