You might remember that for Terra Firma, last year was “the Year of No Peaches”. A days-long hard freeze in February of 2022 wiped out almost our entire crop of “Stone Fruit” : Apricots, Peaches and Nectarines.
Stone fruit is one of our farm’s cornerstones. We grow 30 varieties that generally ripen over a five month season. Since we started growing Peaches in 2006, we’ve never lost the entire crop like we did last year.
With no burdensome fruit to take care of, the trees in the orchard grew like crazy last summer, putting on a ton of new growth and pruning took longer than usual this winter. When the bloom started in February, we were worried that the crop might be too heavy. More flowers generally means more fruit, and peach trees can only hold so much fruit before the branches start breaking.
It turns out we were worried about the wrong thing. Peach flowers are pollinated by bees, and bees need sunshine to fly. While we had a couple of sunny weeks in February, but March was cold, cloudy and wet almost every single day. The bees stayed in their hives. Thankfully, the cool weather slowed the bloom, and many varieties continued to flower into April when the sun came back out again.
Our earliest ripening varieties, most of which were in full bloom during sunny February, have a respectable crop on them. That is the fruit you in your boxes this week. The latest ripening varieties, which were still flowering in April, also have a nice crop. But the main season Peaches — normally the ones with the heaviest crops and biggest fruit — are mostly bare. They were flowering during March.
The cold, wet weather also led to another problem: Taphina Deforma, aka Peach Leaf Curl (PLC). We get Leaf Curl on some or all of our peach and nectarine trees every year, despite spraying organically approved materials to control it. But if most years PLC is like the common cold, this year it was more equivalent to the Covid Pandemic.
Almost all organically approved fungicides are prophylactic and topical, including the one we use for Leaf Curl. If it rains enough after we spray them, for long enough, the material washes off the trees. And once the leaves are infected with the fungus, there is no “organic” way to kill it. We rely on warm, sunny weather that allows the tree to recover from the disease. But this year, the cold weather stuck around through April and into May. The disease didn’t just effect the tips of a few branches, as it usually does, but entire branches and even entire trees.
In early April, there was actually a bumper crop of tiny peaches on many trees in our orchard — far too much fruit for the branches to hold. We had to start thinning — removing fruit — on the earliest maturing varieties. But by the end of the month, the Leaf Curl had killed entire branches, “burning” them back to the trunks and shriveling the tiny fruit on them. On some trees, the fruit itself was deformed by the PLC. I have never seen either of these symptoms before.
And the trees overall look terrible, as if someone walked through the orchard with a flame thrower pointed upwards. Many or even most of the lower branches on some trees are completely or partially blackened. If all goes well the rest of the season, most trees will recover somewhat but I have seen a handful of trees that will likely be killed entirely by the disease.
Still, we will have a decent Peach and Nectarine harvest this year. TFF subscribers will see a nice amount of fruit in your boxes (especially compared to last year) although there will be a few gaps during the summer. Unfortunately we may have a reduced crop next year.
Summer fruit lovers may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Apricots. That’s because we have a zero crop this year. The trees barely bloomed, and set no fruit. I’m not even sure why.
Sometimes it feels crazy to grow so many different varieties of tree fruit. We did it that way to ensure that our CSA subscribers would have fruit in their boxes most weeks during the summer. But in years like this year and last, it has become increasingly obvious our strategy of temporal diversity also helps lower the risk that any one weather event will wipe out the crop entirely.