Peaches sweet story for Ohio growers

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SALEM, Ohio – What’s the buzz on the fuzz?

Ohio’s peach production has been quietly growing for nearly a decade, jumping 53 percent from 5.8 million pounds in 1995 to more than 11 million pounds in 2002.

It’s a sweet success story for some Ohio producers, but not all growers’ efforts will bear fruit.

Still small. Although growing, Ohio’s peach acreage is still fairly small in comparison to apples.

Ohio has approximately 1,000 acres of peach orchards, with more than 75 percent of the crop grown in north central, northeast and central Ohio counties.

The 2002 crop was valued at nearly $4.5 million, according to the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service.

Ohio’s apple production totaled 7,500 acres in 2002 and was valued at approximately $19.9 million.

California leads the nation in peach production, accounting for more than three-quarters of the U.S. peach acreage. Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the nation; Ohio stands at 17th.

Apples still rule. At Peace Valley Orchard in eastern Columbiana County, don’t look for peaches to replace apple trees any time soon, even though the bottom line has been stronger for peaches in recent years.

The Simmons family has about 12 to 13 acres in peaches, compared to 235 acres in apples.

Most of the peaches are sold retail through the farm market located at the orchard, and the demand for locally grown peaches keeps prices strong.

“The price has been real good,” admitted Paul Simmons.

Since 1997, Ohio’s average fresh peach prices have increased from 40 cents a pound to nearly 50 cents a pound.

Conversely, apple prices have been low for at least the last 10 years, which creates an incentive for apple growers to switch acreage into peaches, says Dick Funt, OSU Extension small fruit specialist.

“Apple and peach growers are getting about the same number of pounds per acre,” Funt said. “So, when you are getting the same production, but twice the price, that’s an incentive for growers to switch to peaches.”

There is a potential to harvest peaches the fifth year after planting, compared to the eight to 10 years for an apple tree to bear harvestable fruit.

“Right now the conditions are more favorable for peach production,” Funt said.

What about climate? Despite the demand, peaches are still risky to grow, Simmons said.

“They’re still fairly susceptible to Ohio winters,” said Simmons.

Temperatures below 0 degrees will wipe out a crop, he said. “You have to have high ground to raise peaches.”

A severe freeze in 1993 killed many of the Peace Valley peach trees, and injured the heartwood of many remaining trees. Most blocks had to be replanted, Simmons said.

And springs are profit-killers, too. Peace Valley lost an acre of peaches to a spring frost in 2002.

New cultivars. For at least 30 years, the Redhaven peach variety has been the foundation of Ohio’s peach orchards – and the variety most consumers knew. It’s the standard to which Ohio State University researchers have been comparing their new cultivars.

“If we can find other cultivars that perform like Redhaven, then growers may have more of a selection to choose from,” said Funt.

Funt and other researchers are looking for cultivars with late spring bloom, which will increase bud survival and improve fruit set during periods of spring frost.

Studies conducted in 2001 and 2003 found that cultivars John Boy, White Lady, Bounty, Harrow Beauty, Snow King and Laurol showed promise in delayed bloom.

But the fruit also has to taste good, and researchers are also looking at fruit size, color, flavor and yield.

Consumer changing. While consumers may be buying more fresh peaches at markets for eating, Simmons said the amount of peaches sold in greater quantities for home canning is dwindling.

“People would rather just buy it in a can in a supermarket,” he said.

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