For brothers Frank and Bruce Carlson, owners of Carlson Orchards in Harvard, the damage their peach crop sustained after February’s cold snap is unlike anything they’ve seen in decades.
“It’s the first time in 35 years for us. As a matter of fact, we’ve had very little loss in 35 years,” Frank Carlson explained.
Though a majority of the brothers’ 100-acre farm remains healthy, the 25 acres where peaches are grown won’t bear fruit this year, after the combination of a warm winter and sudden freeze killed off many of their trees’ buds. Frank Carlson estimated the peach crop accounts for 40 percent of the farm’s total sales.
The total loss of the farm’s peaches is not isolated to Harvard, however.
Peter Morton, manager of Autumn Hill Orchards in Groton, is reporting a similar loss.
“We haven’t seen any blossoms yet, but I think a lot of our peach blossoms are dead… It doesn’t look like we’ll have much of a crop this year,” he said.
Because there are 7,000 farms that grow peaches in Massachusetts alone, the extent of the loss is hard to track, but for Jon Clements, a tree fruit specialist working for UMass Amherst’s Extension Fruit Program, the damage could affect the entire state, as well as Connecticut and Rhode Island.
“I don’t think you’ll find a single peach in any of those states,” he said.
As Clements explains it, the widespread crop loss was made possible after the warm winter left peach trees vulnerable to a sudden drop in temperature that occurred on Valentine’s Day.
“When temperatures start to go below minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, we typically expect the peach buds to start dying off. They just aren’t hardy enough for it, which is why we don’t see them growing in the wild,” said Clements.
“I haven’t spoken to everyone, but from the growers I have spoken with, it’s been the same,” said Julia Grimaldi, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources. “We have learned from our fruit growers that many of their peach crops have been damaged by freeze, but they’re optimistic that their other fruit trees and berries have survived.”
Because of their comparatively unpredictable nature, most farms throughout the state have other, hardier crops like apples, pears, strawberries and blueberries to rely on.
In the 40 years Sunny Crest Orchard in Sterling has been growing peaches, owner Bill Broderick said he could only think of three other times there had been widespread loss, and never to the degree he’s seen this year.
“It’s pretty unusual, but it does happen,” Broderick said, adding that it’s because of unpredictable acts of nature like this that he, and many other farmers, diversify crops.
Though one third of his farm was taken up by peaches and other stone fruit, including plums, nectarines and pluots, the remaining two-thirds of the farm is taken up by apples, which were less damaged by the weather.
Speaking with other peach farmers throughout the region, Broderick said that he had heard the effect on peaches is spread as far west as New York and as far south as Pennsylvania.
“It sounds like everyone got the same blast of cold weather,” he said.
While many peach farms have reported experiencing losses across the board for all stone fruits, some have found that only their peaches were affected.
“We grow the same amount of cherries as we do peaches, and they had been dormant during the February cold,” said Andre Tougas, one of the owners of Tougas Family Farm in Northboro. “But they were definitely damaged in April, so I couldn’t say how much we still have.”
While none of his peach buds survived, Tougas did estimate that as much as 50 percent of the cherry crop could still produce fruit.
Ken Nicewicz, owner of Nicewicz Family Farm in Bolton reported that at least 50 percent of his farm’s plum population had survived.
“Some kinds of stone fruit just seem more tolerant than others, and I think that might have been the case,” Nicewicz said.
The damage was even less severe at Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, where close to 40 percent of the apricot crop has survived and 80 percent of the plums have remained unaffected.
“I’m a little surprised myself, but I’ve been hearing that apricots, and especially plums are still doing fine,” said Ward’s Berry Farm owner Jim Ward.
Ward did, however, add that his peach crop had been completely lost.
Because the cold weather only killed off the peach buds, the trees themselves remain healthy and will still be able to produce fruit next year.
Whether this year’s crop serves as a sign of things to come still remains unclear.
“If you ask the old-timers, they all say how much winters used to be colder,” said Clements. “I think winters have gotten warmer, and when you get those weird seasons that are very warm then have just a few days of cold, that’s bad across the board.”
Though Clements did say that warmer winters could see the boundaries of the peach growing region push further north, the Carlson brothers of Harvard question what warmer winters might mean for the areas already able to grow peaches.
“All it took was just a few days of cold,” said Bruce Carlson. “We had one of the warmest winters ever, so is this going to be something we’re going to have to worry more about from now on?”
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