This spring, people worried about peaches. After an early April frost killed a quarter of New Jersey’s crop, by one estimate, farmers, chefs, and consumers fretted that there wouldn’t be enough of the succulent fruit to go around. As it turns out, the damage was mostly done on the varieties that get harvested early in the season, and as of next week, shoppers should be able to find most of the bounty they’ve come to expect. However, the number of New Jersey peach farmers is dwindling, leaving peach lovers considering the future of one of the state’s most valued crops and plotting ways to reverse the trend.
“We just didn’t have enough supply to run the festival this year,” said Jenna Smith, whose Washington Township family has spent the past two decades organizing the New Jersey Peach Festival in Gloucester County. The Smiths cancelled the festival this year, not necessarily because of the short-term effects of the frost but because of the longer-term effects the industry has had on its participants.
“There just aren’t as many farmers around anymore and they didn’t donate the same amount as in the past,” she said.
Her father is among the peach farmers who left the business, sometime in 2001 or 2002, she recalls. The stress of farming and the vagaries of weather pushed him out, along with the 15 New Jersey peach farmers who’ve quit over the past five years alone. Today 75 peach orchards support 2 million trees for a total of 5,000 acres and $30 million to $35 million in wholesale sales.
That’s down drastically from the state’s high in the 1900s, when Hunterdon County, then the center of preach production, grew 4 million trees by itself. But the San Jose scale insect decimated the state’s orchards in the early 20th century and it’s never again reached that peak.
“Peach farming is one of the hardest businesses out there,” said Jerry Frecon, a consultant for the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council. “It’s always a challenge.”
First of all, it’s hard to protect fruit trees from weather. Excessive heat or cold, too much or too little rain, hail — they can all wreak havoc on a crop, especially if the tree is in bloom or bearing fruit. This year, a warm March coaxed early-blooming peach tree varieties to flower one-to-two weeks ahead of schedule, placing them in full bloom when the frost hit on April 4 and 5.
“These varieties were at the sweet spot for damage,” said Hemant Gohil, agricultural agent for the Cooperative Extension of Gloucester County. “Late-blooming varieties were in the bud stages and those are hardier.”
Plus, more so than with many ground crops, wind can blow blooms and heavy peaches off branches and split entire trees apart. But at the same time, the cold snap killed off blooms that would have needed to be thinned anyway to make enough room for the peaches to grow big and red.
The natural thinning probably saved some farmers a lot in labor costs, says Gohil, who notes that the process of cutting approximately 80 percent of the bloom probably accounts for a third of labor expenses. Pruning and harvesting account for most of the rest. As long as farmers didn’t ignore best practices and prune too early in the season, they may have benefitted. The diversity of varieties, geographies, and farming practices helped the season, too.
Generally, though, peach farming requires more labor than most. Almost every task is done by hand, save for tractors that mow the grass and spray pesticides. Harvesting demands somewhat skilled labor — people who have experience and aptitude. Even apple farming tends toward the more lucrative, given that apple orchards consist of trees that grow closer to the ground and America opens its arms wider to processed apple products like cider, sauce, and pie.
Fortunately, demand is generally quite strong, and Frecon says the state’s farmers, who enjoy the fourth-highest yield in the country, could statistically supply all of the peaches consumed in New Jersey instead of selling them up and down the east coast of the United States and Canada. However, they’re forced to compete in local grocery stores with peaches from other nations and states (like California, South Carolina, and Georgia, the top three peach states, respectively) and exotic new fruits from across the globe. Because New Jersey’s price index is higher than most other states and countries, its crops often get priced higher, too, making it harder for them to compete.
What’s more, unlike apples, peaches get sold by grocers by the color of the flesh rather than the particular type. A store might break out apples into categories like Granny Smith or Red Delicious, diverse peaches get mixed into bins labeled “white peaches” and “yellow peaches.” What this does is cut down on their shelf space. To help New Jersey farmers compete, Rutgers University’s Tree Fruit Breeding Program is working hard to develop more varieties of peaches that will allow consumers more choice and peaches more exposure. Peaches that are low-acid or less messy are among those being prioritized.
The peach promotion council says it expects these new varieties to draw farmers back into the field and notes that acreage devoted to peaches has actually increased over the past two years. The council is still running peach parties and cooking demonstrations around the state this summer and will try to revive the peach fest next year.
With harvesting of midseason peaches set to start this week and next, chefs like Bruce Lefebvre of The Frog And The Peach in New Brunswick Jim Malaby of blueplate in Mullica Hill are prepared to go forward with their annual peach tastings and special menus. Although the spring frost may have shortened the summer season into late August instead of early September by killing some of the early blooms on late-harvesting varieties, everyone’s concerns are finally eased. “Although the forecast was initially even worse, my fears were allayed,” said Lefebvre.
Frecon agreed, “We’ll have plenty of peaches in New Jersey.”