From farm to packing facility, Jersey peaches are big business

The Melick family has been farming in New Jersey for 10 generations — back to the 1700s. Peaches are among their top crop.

August is National Peach Month, and New Jersey continues its role as a top supplier.

“It’s been a great year. The fruit has been wonderful,” said Rebecca Melick, co-owner of Melick Farms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects New Jersey farmers will produce 64 million pounds of peaches this year, an increase of 8 million from 2017. This will make the state the third top producer of peaches in the nation, which is actually a drop one spot from last year.

Despite what appears to be a sweet end to the season, the wild weather swings from drought to rain have impacted farms like the Melick’s.

For New Jersey farms, the weather this summer hasn’t exactly been peachy. The torrential rains on weekends have hurt farms that rely on visitors.

“Every year is different, so sometimes you’re going to get rainy weekends. It’s always a gamble, so we have had our fair share of rain on the weekends, but things can turn around. It’s a long season, so typically it evens out,” John Melick, co-owner of Melick Farms, said.

“This year has been a major struggle compared to last year. We had a real bad drought stress early on in the season which reduces the size of the fruit, so our volume goes down majorly. Come August, we had a little bit more rain, which helped the crop out. The peaches grow a little bit better, better volume,” said Mason Heilig from Heilig Orchards.

New Jersey has about 4,000 acres of peach farming land. While the Melick farm ships locally and sells a lot of its peaches to weekend visitors, on the other side of the state, the peach business looks more like big industry.

At Eastern Propak, all types of fruit, including peaches, come from local farms. They’re tagged on the assembly line and then packaged for shipping across the country. Business is so good, the company is expanding to handle millions more pounds of fruit.

“New Jersey farms are producing more. We needed additional space to accommodate them,” said Jeff Danner, general manager of Eastern Propak. “We pride ourselves on going from bin to box in 24 hours. So by the time the grower has the fruit in a bin, 24 hours later we have it in a box and it’s available for sale.”

New Jersey Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher is highlighting the economic driver of the farming industry here. The state has protected about 220,000 acres of farmland from development. He says showcasing the two sides of one industry — small farm to big business — is an important message.

“We have the opportunity to drive up to a farm and get something off a farm stand or a farmers market. But at the same time, the business side is something like this where they are coordinating millions of pounds of peaches that are going across the state and across the country,” said Fisher.

Besides weather, challenges include a labor shortage being driven in part by the low unemployment rate. And while the farmers say peaches aren’t much of a concern in a trade war, another New Jersey crop — apples — are. The main apple season begins in September.