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Late freeze hit plums, peaches hard

April snap wiped out local stone fruit, but apples, blueberries seem sound

In a repeat performance from two years ago, Mother Nature has again deprived us of our locally-grown peaches and plums this summer.

“We have no peaches or plums,” said Andrea Darrow, who owns Putney’s Green Mountain Orchards with her family.

Although it was a mild winter, the late freeze brought two days in April of 12 to 13 degrees, and “that does a number on” the peaches and plums, Darrow said.

Dummerston’s Scott Farm has no peaches this year, either, said Zeke Goodband, the farm’s fruit tree orchardist and orchard manager.

“April was warmer, historically, and the trees broke dormancy early. Then we got the April cold and it damaged the plum blossoms,” Goodband said. “It’s the first time in 40 years there was no plum crop,” in the area, he added.

“The peach buds were damaged by very cold temperatures earlier than that,” Goodband said. “It’s disappointing ... it’s wonderful fruit.” But this year, “it’s not happening,” he said.

Jan Spanierman at Walker Farm in Dummerston said the farm stand got no local peaches or plums this year.

“We don’t grow them,” Spanierman said, but buy them from local orchards.

Not this year, though.

And it’s not just Windham County that’s hurting.

A statewide decline

Steve Justis, executive director of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association, said this year’s early warming and late freeze “did pretty much wipe out the stone fruit” in the state.

In a recent Boston Globe article, UMass Extension commercial fruit tree specialist Jon Clements estimated a 99-percent drop from Massachusetts’s previous year’s harvest ["The year there were no peaches in August,” Food & Dining, August 3, 2016].

Pointing to the baskets of stone fruit from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Spanierman said they were the most locally-grown Walker Farm could get. “Even Glastonbury, Connecticut, which is famous for their fruit, had none for us this year,” she said.

With piles of stone fruit in supermarkets, why should anyone care whether locally-grown peaches and plums made it this year?

“It provides summer cash flow,” said Goodband, whose orchard specializes in apples, which hit their seasonal and sales peak months later.

Another reason the loss of local, late-summer fruits is a bummer: flavor. A side-by-side comparison between a locally grown peach and a store-bought peach immediately reveals differences in taste and texture.

In a 2014 interview with The Commons, Read Miller of Dwight Miller Orchards in Dummerston explained why: “[Local] peaches are juicier than the ones you find in the grocery store. It’s not because we do anything special to our trees. It’s because our peaches are direct-to-customer, and are tree-ripened."

“A tree-ripe peach is a peach that actually ripens on the tree,” Miller said, rather than getting picked before its time, which is the industry standard. Many prefer tree-ripened peaches because they believe such fruit offer the best flavor, texture, and juiciness.

Blueberries are great, apples are good

“Blueberries are very good this year!” Darrow said, explaining that this crop ripens later and “was more dormant during the freeze."

Darrow’s farm’s apple crop is mixed this year. Because of the late freeze, “in some spots there are no apples,” she said.

“We checked in with Cornell [University]” about the freeze, “and at that stage of development you can expect up to 90 percent loss” in affected areas, she said.

“Down at the bottom of the hills, the tops of the trees are okay, but at the bottom, “few of the fruits survived, Darrow said, explaining inversion — “the cold draws down” — negatively affected trees at lower elevations as well as the bottoms of trees in higher areas.

“We had a 30-to-40-percent loss in apples,” Darrow said, but optimistically noted her orchard has 125 acres, “so it might not be so bad."

Darrow said she initially thought an early variety of apple, the Zestar, suffered more damage, but it turned out to be fine.

“Other earlies look good: Paula Red, Ginger Gold. The Macs are good in some places. Macouns uphill are OK, but it depends on how high up they were,” Darrow said.

“We should have an average size crop compared with last year’s bumper crop, so growers are pretty happy,” Justis said. “So far, knock wood, hail damage has been minimal in Vermont, unlike the New York side of Lake Champlain,” and, “the recent rains have been very helpful in getting the apples to size up."

“Other than it being dry, things look pretty good” for apples, Goodband said, noting his workers began picking the first crop — “an old Russian variety” — at the end of July. Gravensteins are next, he said, and “those are the first great eating apple” of the season.

“It’s not a bumper crop, but it’s a decent crop,” Goodband said of his apples this year. “We got more than we thought [we would] in the orchards.

“There’ll be plenty of apples for everyone,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #373 (Wednesday, September 7, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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