Winter’s Dilemma

The harsh reality of winter’s cold snap and our local stone fruit

For the casual commuter, winter’s chill was a bit cumbersome this year—a few more laps with the snow blower—a utility bill that made you cringe. But for the few and the proud who make their living growing stone fruit in the midwest, this winter’s bite will leave a mark long into the summer months. My dad and I can tell you down to the hour (January 7th, 4:30am) when our year changed. The half-dozen thermometers we strategically place throughout our orchards consistently read -13°F just before dawn that night. All signs were pointing toward significant, if not total crop loss.

Stone fruit, like peaches and cherries, do not respond well to deep freezes in the dead of winter (below -10°F) or mild freezes (below 27°F) after the spring bloom in April and May. The tree itself can withstand temperatures much colder (-20°F). So our trees will survive, albeit a bit stressed. What did freeze and die were the little buds that contain the upcoming season’s fruit. Needless to say it is risky business planting these types of trees in a climate for which Mother Nature did not intend them.

The plight of the orchardist extends beyond Ohio to other prime tree-fruit-growing regions in Michigan, New York, and most of Pennsylvania. There is talk among growers that a small pocket with ideal conditions in southern Pennsylvania will have peaches. So if you are shopping at your favorite farm stand this summer and come across local peaches, feel free to put them in your shopping basket right next to the local coconuts and bananas. But I shouldn’t be so bold as to speak in superlatives. There may be a lucky grower out there who happens to have a few peach or cherry trees that bear fruit. Just know that among the small fraternity of fruit growers in Ohio, I have talked to no farmer who was optimistic about his or her peach or cherry crop.

Given the circumstances, our farm may consider purchasing peaches from growers we know in regions who do have them: southern Pennsylvania or perhaps the Carolinas. But we struggle with this idea, both financially and philosophically. The wholesale price will be ridiculously high this year. Can we sell to our customers at a price that doesn’t offend, but still covers our costs? Don’t forget to factor in the drought conditions that California is experiencing and how that affects markets. Also, the quality you get from fruit that is picked to ship multiple days is nowhere near the quality of our own fruit, which often goes from tree to lunch box the same day.

More importantly, we take a certain amount of pride in growing our own crops. I am a fruit farmer who wants to sell my fruit, knowing that it tastes the way it does because of the long hours I put in nurturing it to harvest. I don’t fancy myself a middleman and find it hard to advocate for someone else’s product. Contrast these thoughts with the fact that no peach crop means two additional months without any revenue. The decision to buy peaches will ground our emotion in sound economics.

This raises questions about the frequency of crop loss for stone fruit growers in our area. As with most things, I look to my father for guidance and knowledge. In the past ten growing seasons, we have had four in which our trees have given us yields to their full potential; three years with varying degrees of loss due to spring frost; two seasons with complete loss due to spring frost; and one (this year) with complete loss due to winter deep freezes. Reaching back into his memory, dad recalls the blizzard of 1978 and again in 1989 as the two occasions in which winter deep freeze took the crop. The temperatures in those years were also cold enough to kill trees in addition to the fruit buds. He concluded by saying three great years out of ten is batting a pretty good average in the peach business.

So why does any farmer grow peaches? Good question.

For one, eating a tree-ripened peach is one of the most enjoyable things you can do with your clothes on. And peaches remain a profitable crop, even in years with a certain percentage of loss. But growers who diversify are wise. We balance our 35 acres of peaches against 90 acres of apples. On top of that, we’ve got about 15 acres of pears, apricots, grapes, plums, and berries (no bananas … yet). We like to sell all of our offerings through a variety of channels—right off the farm at our orchard market, through direct relationships with area grocers and farm markets, or to larger retailers via our marketing cooperative that collectively sells Ohio fruit.

And then there are the revenue streams that are independent from our crop … folks who simply enjoy coming out to the farm. These take the form of tours for local school groups, weekend wagon rides through the orchard, and visits by guests from the neighboring Erie County Metroparks who come to us as part of a weekend outside the city. This is perhaps the component of our job that is most rewarding: getting to share the land we work with folks who want to enjoy it. For every gloomy thought regarding the loss of our peaches, the joy is 10-fold when watching a child sink her teeth into a juicy apple. And even more so when that child is my daughter.

We will endure. This is not the first, nor will it be the last time that Mother Nature tests our resolve. All indications are pointing to another above-average apple harvest for the fall.