Not a Peach of a Summer

May 16, 1994

One of summer's great pleasures is eating a fresh peach, but locally grown varieties of this juicy fruit won't be available at Maryland's roadside stands this year. Last winter's harsh weather did more than close schools, down trees and drive up utility bills: It cut a destructive swath through the state's peach orchards.

Peaches are not a major crop in Maryland -- the $2 million to $3 million yield is but a blip in the state's billion-dollar-plus agricultural market -- but there are a number of large orchards that grow the fruit in Carroll County, Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. Fresh peaches are important, farmers say, because they draw consumers to the roadside stands where they also purchase other summer vegetables and fruit.

Peaches and other stone fruits are among the most risky crops to grow.

They are very susceptible to changes in temperature because of the way the trees produce their fruit. Each spring, the trees generate new branches with thousands of fruit and leaf buds. These buds appear as little bumps on the branches and must make it through the next winter before they can sprout leaves or fruit.

Crop failures usually occur after trees have blossomed and are gripped by an unseasonable frost. This winter's bitter cold froze nearly all of the young, tender peach buds even before they blossomed. This is likely to be the worst year for Maryland peaches since 1985, when cold weather also ruined the crop.

During a normal winter, the tightly closed peach buds can withstand temperatures that drop down to about five degrees above zero, but last winter's extended sub-zero temperatures ravaged the orchards and destroyed most of these tender buds. The intense cold turns moisture in the bud cells to ice, which, in turn, expands and ruptures the walls of the bud cells.

Until this winter, all the conditions pointed to a good crop this year. Last summer looked promising. There was plenty of moisture and many warm days. Trees were producing prodigious amounts of buds. But the extraordinary cold put an unfortunate end to any harvest.

To be sure, Maryland's roadside fruit stands will offer peaches this summer, but they will come from more southern locales. If we are lucky and the temperature cooperates, we can look forward to purchasing locally grown peaches -- in the summer of VTC

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