For the first time in 25 years, there’ll be no peaches coming from the orchards that supply Reiff’s Farm Market on Rothsville Road, just outside Akron in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
That was the fear back in early April when brothers Edwin and Nathan Reiff opened their newly expanded and renovated market for the 2019 season. This week, the fear became a confirmed reality.
“It happened for us the first week in February,” Edwin Reiff said. “We had three nights in a row where the temperature dropped below zero. One morning it was minus 12 degrees, then minus 8 the next morning, and minus 6 the next. Any time it goes below zero, you start to lose buds. We’ll have some peaches from a few of the trees at a higher elevation, but not enough to sell.”
It only takes 5 to 8% of a tree’s buds to set to produce a full crop, but nearly all the buds in Reiff’s orchards were wiped out. Reiff said for his customers’ sake, he may look around for a wholesale source of the fruit. From what he’s heard on the orchardists’ grapevine, Reiff believes Lancaster Countians will be able to fill their shopping bags with peaches, but they’ll probably pay a bit more than they did last year.
Reiff’s is well known for its season long offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as its nursery plants in early spring, and cut flowers and pumpkins in the fall. The market closes for the winter the day before Thanksgiving.
Diversification has been a key to their business success. Sweet corn, for example, is among the market staples at Reiff’s.
The farm’s apple trees suffered some hail damage this spring, but Reiff doesn’t expect that to significantly affect the crop.
Napierville Orchard, about a 6-mile crow flight from Reiff’s, is another victim of this year’s weather. Owner Ernest Newswanger said his peach crop was just about wiped out in February by the high-low temperature fluctuation.
“We might have a small crop, but it doesn’t look good,” he said. “There were two days in February where it hit 60 degrees, and I think that pushed the buds. Then the next night it hit 10 below. That killed the buds.”
To top it off, a few weeks ago, hail hit Newswanger’s apple trees. It didn’t destroy the crop, but it marked it, and Americans don’t buy blemished fruit. “We’ll probably be making a lot of apple cider in the fall,” he said.
Newswanger planted every one of the trees at the farm, and he’s been selling fruit for about five years. He has a philosophical, long-range outlook for his business’s future, and he thinks sweet corn sales might help the operation edge toward breakeven for the 2019 season. But there’s no doubt it’ll be a tough year for the young operation.
Tim Elkner is a Penn State Extension educator at the Lancaster office. With the beginning of peach harvest still nearly two months away, he’s heard rumblings of lower production for the county as a whole, but said he’s heard only spotty reports of freezing woes. The near-complete failures at Reiff’s and Napierville were news to him.
“Right now, orchardists are thinning the flowers on peach trees,” he said. “They only need about 10% of the flowers to set crop, and the trees will thin themselves to some extent. Growers remove the flowers they need to remove in order to get a crop of good-sized peaches.”
After orchards are thinned, Elkner said, individual growers should have a better idea of how many of their trees were victimized by frigid weather.
Michael Beiler, a third-generation owner of Beiler’s Fruit Farm outside New Holland, took a break from thinning his peaches Wednesday morning to report that he expects a full crop this year. He believes the farm’s location has spared it some weather woes over the years. He credited his grandfather with picking the right spot for an orchard when he bought the property in the 1950s. Beiler said the cherry and apple crops look good, too, but the plums froze out and they’ll be scarce.
A woman who answered the phone at Spring House Peach Farm in Narvon, about 16 miles southeast of Ephrata, said some of the farm’s varieties had been hit by cold, but she was expecting a pretty normal crop.
Ryan Shenk, who manages Cherry Hill Orchards just outside Lancaster city limits, said he is expecting a pretty normal year. “Lucky for us, we didn’t get any weather that was too hot or too cold,” he said.
John Smucker, of Kissel Hill Farm in Lititz, said he expects to sell about 85% of his usual peach crop at his farm store.
“You never know how much of a peach crop you’re going to have until you pick it,” he said, but he wasn’t expecting any significant loss. Some varieties were hit harder than others, but he noticed the biggest decline in his older trees.
Smucker said he’ll be harvesting peaches from some 21-year-old trees this year, but it will definitely be the last season for those veterans.