Peach grower panel offers thoughts at convention

AFP Correspondent

HERSHEY, Pa. — The four panelists, assembled by moderator Jerry Frecon, Rutgers Cooperative Extension agent, were representative of the peach industry in the Mid-Atlantic region.
The panelists each farmed in a different state — New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland or Pennsylvania — and ran a diverse array of operations.
Audience members were treated to an overview of the farming and marketing models found on each farm, along with thoughts on the most successful peach varieties, trends over the years, and more.
Robert Black, of Catoctin Orchards in Thurmond, Md., is a second-generation farmer.
The 100-acre farm is home to an on-farm retail market and bakery, with some pick-your-own berries and cherries.
The peach orchards are not open for picking.
The farm has the capacity to store peaches, which are held at 33 degrees, then warmed to 55 degrees for a day, prior to being offered for sale.
This method, Black said, keeps the fruit from sweating when removed from storage.
The farm store is open nine months of the year.
Best’s Fruit Farm in Hackettstown, New Jersey, has been in business for over 65 years. Peaches are sold at the on-farm market, as well as to other local farm stands.
Here, the fruit is picked “two days prior to full ripe,” Bob Best, Sr, explained. Picked any riper, and the fruit will bruise. The farm educates customers about this, explaining that the fruit will ripen and soften in a day or two.
The farm has refrigerated storage capacity to maintain freshness of the fruit. The primary crops are peaches and apples, along with their own apple cider. They do grow annuals and perennials, sweet corn and a small assortment of other produce in addition to the main orchard crops. Their on-farm store is open year-round.
Jim Bennett, of Bennett Orchards in Frankford, Del., runs a pick-your-own peach orchard. Some fruit is pre-picked and sold at local farmers’ markets, as well as some locally-owned grocery stores.
Located in prime tourist territory, the farm is able to attract the pick-your-own crowd throughout the peach season. Planted in 1987, the 25-acre orchard has always been a you-pick operation.
The farm is open only during the peach season.
“When our peaches are ripe, they are in the consumer’s hands,” Bennett said.
Mark Bream, of Bream Orchards, a third-generation wholesale peach and apple grower in Ortanna, Pennsylvania, completed the panel. Bream Orchards has a large packing facility and cold storage. Peaches are sold in half-bushel crates and 25-pound boxes, primarily for the wholesale market, with some going to other local growers for their farm stands.
No matter the customer base, all four orchard growers emphasized continuity of the crop as one of their primary goals.
The growers all agreed that consistency of the supply throughout the season is one of the factors that determines which varieties to plant.
The “time slot” of ripening is very important at Bream Orchards, where their wholesale accounts require that peaches can be continually picked from Independence Day through Labor Day, Bream said.
The Red Haven variety has the most acres devoted to its production.
Resistance to bacterial spot, as well as a large size and good color are other important characteristics when selecting peaches, Bream said.
At Best’s Fruit Farm, customers today want “a consistent peach from the beginning to the end, that looks alike and tastes alike,” Best said.
He noted that several decades ago, customers waited for their favorite peach variety to ripen, but today prefer the same taste, color and texture in the peaches all season long.
Best’s Fruit Farm is now almost exclusively with breeder Paul Friday’s Flamin’ Fury series. PF19 is “the finest peach I have ever raised in my life,” Best exclaimed. All the peaches planted at the orchard are designed to ripen in succession, four to five days apart between varieties, with each variety picked two or three times, no more.
PF 35 is the latest variety to ripen, just after Labor Day, and is “a great peach,” Best said.
While Best’s peach orchard, located over 1,000 feet in elevation, isn’t prone to frost damage, cold-hardiness is a major concern when selecting peach varieties.
The hillside location offers good airflow and disease control, but bacterial spot resistance is very important.
Black’s orchard consists of fifteen varieties of peaches “from early to late,”with Contender beginning the season in early June, and Autumn Prince finishing up the season in late September.
The aim is to “always have a great peach out their for the customer,” he said. The southeastern slope here gives the orchard an early start to the season, about five days prior than others in the area. Ponds provide trickle irrigation to the orchards, which is one of the reasons for their success with the crop.
In Delaware, Bennett is “sticking with the old and looking for the new” in peach variety. “When we do pick-your-own, we have to have continuous peaches ready on the tree,” he said. He has found that newer varieties, which require one to three three pickings and have roughly a five day harvest period work very well for the PYO format.
Uniform ripening, with peaches that hang nicely on the tree for ease of picking, allow the orchard to provide “high-quality peaches” to the upscale tourist market.
The most popular peach here is the Loring, which his customers ask for by name.
All four growers also offer nectarines. Bennett has only one variety, Fantasia.
He also has only one variety of white peach. With his pick-your-own format, the logistics of offering a continual supply get complicated, so having just one time to harvest these less-popular fruits works best, he said.
Best’s Fruit Farm offers nectarines, planting “just enough for a retail store,” with four varieties of nectarines ripening throughout the season.
They have a large demand for white peaches, and try to offer these over a prolonged season.
“We’ve always raised quite a few white peaches,” Best said.
On the wholesale market at Bream Orchards, two varieties of nectarines, with some flat peaches, are offered, but they do not grow any white peaches. White peaches and nectarines are popular at Black’s orchard, with six varieties of nectarines and almost a dozen of white peaches.
“Everybody wants freestone,” Black said. “Our customers do not want a cling peach in the middle of the season.”
Black said he is always testing and trying new varieties, and solicits input from his best customers before deciding to plant a variety in bulk. Best advised that ease of picking should also be considered, as any damage done to the fruit or tree during picking can mean disease issues, or unsaleable fruit. Whether direct-market retail, pick-your-own or wholesale, meeting the specific needs of your customer base is an important consideration.
This panel of experienced peach growers may each market their products differently.
But they all share the same goal: to grow the best quality peaches for their customers.
Whether just-picked or packed and shipped, the quality of their peaches results from hard work, planning, and a continual focus on customer satisfaction.