Mid-Missouri peach harvest crippled by harsh winter

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 5:32 p.m. CDT; updated 10:15 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 23, 2014

BOONVILLE — The brown wooden fruit stand in front of Peach Tree Farm was nearly empty Monday. Usually at this time of year, there are peaches in abundance, waiting to be held, sniffed and taken away by peach lovers.

What Bruce Arnett and his family suspected months ago is now clear: The cold winter took its toll on the 3,000-tree orchard near Boonville. In an average year, the Arnetts harvest about 100,000 pounds of peaches. In 2013, they brought in 140,000.

But this summer, the harvest is expected to be about 35,000 pounds, Arnett said.

"We're coming off two years of bumper crops, so it's not life-threatening," he said. "We just have to take it and go on."

Peach Tree isn't selling at any farmers markets right now. Disappointed peach enthusiasts can blame the winter weather. Peach trees form buds in the fall. During the colder months, the buds overwinter. Certain varieties of peaches are more resistant to lower temperatures than others.

The trees at Peach Tree Farm, as with most peach orchards, are about 25 percent cold-hardy varieties such as Contender and Gloria. Taking care of them is more labor-intensive, requiring more thinning, Arnett said. It's seldom necessary to have more than 25 percent, even in a climate as inhospitable to peach production as mid-Missouri.

But when the temperature dips below minus 10 degrees, the Arnetts know it means trouble for the peach buds on their crop.

"When it gets cold, we look at the temperature, but there really isn't anything we can do about it," Arnett said.

At one point in February, the temperature dipped to minus 13 degrees.

"The cold-hardy trees did exceedingly well," Arnett said. "But the others just bottomed out."

The small harvest doesn't mean less work for Arnett. He still has to mow, trim, pick weeds, spray pesticides, and pick and weigh the peaches.

"We'll just hire fewer pickers this year," he said. "Usually we recruit every family member we can find to pick fruit for us."

A small harvest like this isn't unheard of for Peach Tree Farm. Arnett said that five or six years ago, after an extremely cold winter, they had just eight peaches in the entire orchard.

"Growing peaches in Missouri is fun because it's difficult," Arnett said. "If it wasn't so hard, it wouldn't be nearly as fun."

He expects to have a few plentiful weeks in early August when some more of his cold-hardy varieties set. For about two weeks, they'll harvest about 2,000 pounds a day, he said.

"We might zero out. We might even pay our expenses this year," he said. "After a couple of bumper years, that'd be all right with me."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.      

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Mark Foecking July 22, 2014 | 3:13 p.m.

My peach trees have maybe three dozen fruit on them. Hey - I'll take it. Sometimes the trees need a break too. I have a good apple crop.


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