Bumper crop of peaches gives tree-fruit season a sweet start

Photo by Chea Waters Evans
Kim Torrey of Williston found out about the bumper crop of peaches earlier this summer when she went to Shelburne Orchards to pick sour cherries and immediately added herself to the email lottery list. Here, she chats with orchard owner Nick Cowles. “My favorite part of this is the people,” he said.

The Shelburne Orchards web site declares in large cheerful type: “There is an obscene amount of peaches this year!”

Branches on the peach trees at the orchard are so heavy with fruit that they are skimming the ground. The fuzzy fruits have been missing from the Vermont fruit scene for years, but they made a comeback in a big way this summer. After a chance combination of several factors, the stars aligned for a bumper crop of peaches that hasn’t been seen in years.

It is surprising to think of chilly Vermont, with its short summer and moderate temperatures—especially this year—as a hospitable environment for the delicate fruit that thrives on warm temperatures and sunlight. Terry Bradshaw, a research assistant professor and tree fruit and viticulture specialist at the University of Vermont, describes this year’s peach bonanza as the result of “a perfect storm.”

Peach trees can survive cold winters as long as the temperature stays above -15 degrees Fahrenheit; any lower, and the entire tree will die. The difference of a few degrees is significant for survival, and trees will live but not produce fruit if the temperature falls to -10 or -12 degrees. After two relatively mild winters, Bradshaw said, the peach trees were primed for a banner year.

The trees save their energy over the course of several non-fruit bearing seasons, Bradshaw said. “They saved up their juices for three years, and then – boom! – they dropped. Peaches bloomed earlier than apples, and they bloomed before all the rain came.”

As long as farmers can manage the excessive moisture with fungicides, the rain is a key ingredient for big, juicy peaches. “There is a huge abundance of fruit that normally would have all been very small, but then the rain came, and the trees were able to size up to larger fruit because there was so much moisture,” Bradshaw said.

At Shelburne Orchards on Labor Day, owner Nick Cowles had a system: Peach pickers signed up to receive an email invitation for a date and time to show up to pick; on the holiday, Cowles had arranged for 30 visitors per half hour starting at 9 a.m. and continuing through the day. He usually has a lottery and allows 350 lucky pickers to enjoy the harvest. This year, he said he has had 2,000 people come through and will have more in the coming weeks.

Getting out of her car, Kerry Stabell, who drove with her husband and son from Barre, said, “We’re hoping for some of those big baseball-size ones.” Her hopes were soon realized.

Cowles grows several varieties of peaches, the most common is called Reliance, which is known for its cold-hardiness and therefore has the best chance of surviving a Vermont winter. The variety was originally developed in the 1970s in New Hampshire.

One late frost was potentially damaging to this year’s peaches, but Cowles said he woke up at 2 o’clock one morning in May to drive up and down his rows of peach, plum, and pear trees, in his tractor with an empty sprayer blowing its fans in order to prevent the cold air from settling and killing the blossoms.

Ironically, thinning peach blossoms is an important step toward yielding a big harvest. Cowles estimated that he and his crew hand-thinned about 80 percent of the blossoms from this year’s trees. Thinning ensures that the tree’s energy isn’t spread too much across too many blossoms, and results in bigger, juicier fruit. It also keeps the branches from getting too weak and breaking, a problem that impacts future harvests.

Bradshaw estimates that there are eight to ten acres total of peach trees grown in Vermont, though he said the number could be larger because of small, unreported orchards. Shelburne Orchards is one of the biggest.

Bradhsaw said Shelburne is an ideal location for peach growing because there is a “microclimate where you can grow certain more cold hardy varieties of peaches.” Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, in Addison County, “has a nice little microclimate” as well, he said. Lake proximity is a major factor of those favorable conditions.

Peaches are expensive – $3.50 a pound at Shelburne Orchards – and yield the highest profit per tree of any crop on a farm, in part because of the unpredictability of each year’s yield and because farmers could go several years without seeing a single peach.

Kim Torrey from Williston left Shelburne Orchards with a big basket of peaches on a recent morning, picked before she headed to work. Her plans for her harvest were the same as her reason for showing up to pick: “I like pie.”

Cowles recommends halving peaches, removing the pits, and freezing them for a day before taking them back out and removing the skin. Then they can be popped back into the freezer and kept all winter. His favorite way to enjoy the fruit is to slice it in half, drizzle it with olive oil, and grill it.

Peach lovers should take advantage of this year’s plenty, because it is unlikely to come again any time soon. Bradshaw said there is usually a good crop “every three years, but it’s not usually this big. It could be five years before we get all the stars lining up like that again.

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