N.J. peach crop running late but should be abundant

Tom Holtzhauser of Mullica Hill says he had "what I consider a 100 percent full crop."
Tom Holtzhauser of Mullica Hill says he had "what I consider a 100 percent full crop." (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 26, 2014

At Holtzhauser Farms in Mullica Hill, the first peaches are nearly ready for harvest.

After a severe winter and cool, frosty spring, they're running about a week and a half late this year - with the harvest set to begin about July 4.

But the peaches are "looking great," farmer Tom Holtzhauser said. "I've got about 35 varieties of peaches, and we'll be harvesting into September."

This year's crop is expected to yield up to 35,000 tons of fruit from the state's 5,500 acres of trees - about the same as last season despite the brutal weather, according to the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council, a nonprofit organization of growers, shippers, wholesalers, and associated industries.

The winter snow picked up nitrogen from the atmosphere, then transferred it into the ground as it melted, said Holtzhauser, who harvests 20,000 to 29,000 half-bushels of peaches each season.

"The nitrogen is good [for the trees], so we have a gorgeous crop," he said. "The peaches are spaced out nicely on the trees, and the fruit is big already.

"I saw some damaged trees from the [earlier] cold temperatures; some lost their buds," said Holtzhauser, who has 8,000 trees lining 144 acres. "But I came out with what I consider a 100 percent full crop. I think it's going to be a good year."

Though a handful of growers saw their trees damaged by hail, Holtzhauser's farm and most others were unaffected.

The trees "are loaded with fruit," said Jerry Frecon, Rutgers University professor emeritus of fruit science, a consultant to the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council, and editor of the annual New Jersey Peach Buyers Guide for wholesalers and retailers.

The farmers also have many new varieties that "extend the season and give us higher-quality and more intensely flavored peaches both earlier and later during the growing season," Frecon said, adding that the best-flavored peaches are in August, "the official New Jersey Peach Month."

Much of the peaches now in supermarkets are from out of state - from farms in Georgia, South Carolina, and California - and are generally "small, ugly, and bruised," likely because of poor weather conditions, Holtzhauser said.

But New Jersey peaches should soon be replacing them on the shelves.

Al Caggiano Jr., who harvests more than 250,000 half-bushels at Sunny Slope Orchards in Bridgeton, anticipates a crop ready for sale during the second week of July and to be picking peaches well into mid-September.

John Hurff, who grows and markets a wide variety of peaches and nectarines at William Schober Sons Orchards in Monroeville, also plans to have a full crop for sale the second weekend of July.

"The peaches look great," he said. "It's funny, but if the weather stays hot, people want peaches through September and into October."

As soon as the region feels the first blast of cool air, consumers change, said Holtzhauser, who said he noticed the buying habits shifting about 10 years ago.

"For some reason, everybody changes their minds," he said. "They want apples, pumpkins, and mums."

"It all depends on how warm it stays; that's the key factor," he said. "If it's hot into September, then peach growers have nothing to worry about. If it gets cold, we're in a lot of trouble."

For now, though, the fruit is growing - and farmers are happy.

Santo John Maccherone, chairman of the Peach Promotion Council and owner of Circle M Farms in Salem, anticipates a "beautiful, flavorful" crop of about 50,000 to 59,000 half-bushels at his farm.

Lewis DeEugenio, owner of Summit City Farms and president of the Jersey Fruit Marketing Cooperative in Glassboro, also is optimistic. He recently opened a farm winery with emphasis on fruit wines - especially peach and nectarine.

"Our farm was started by my grandfather in 1922 with 7.5 acres at the site of our home farm," he said. "We have expanded to 500 acres of predominantly peach, nectarine, apples, corn, and pumpkins.

"The coldest winter in many, many years thinned the fruit on trees" but "excellent size and quality should be available beginning in early July," DeEugenio said. "Rain and moderate temperatures in May resulted in very good growing conditions."

When the season is over, Holtzhauser will rejoice - if he's sold his crop.

"Some guys get caught with hundreds and hundreds of bins of [unsold] peaches," he said. "When I get rid of my last peaches, I'm jumping for joy.

"It's a good feeling when you have nothing else to sell," he said.


ecolimore@phillynews.com

856-779-3833 InkyEBC

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