Frost damage has stolen pick of Md. peach crop


Connoisseurs of the peach may be disappointed this year -- tasty, locally grown peaches are in short supply.

According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, two-thirds of the state peach harvest -- which would be coming to market just about this time -- fell victim to a brutal January freeze that destroyed tree buds early in their development.

Most of the crop in Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties -- the state's main peach-growing region -- "was wiped out," M. Bruce West, head of the department's crop reporting service, said yesterday.

But growers in other regions of the state -- primarily those east of Interstate 95 -- fared better, although some still suffered losses.

Mr. West said the state harvest is expected to total 3 million pounds this year. This is down from 10 million pounds last year, when the crop brought farmers about $2.5 million in sales.

Prices also seem to vary from location to location. Mr. West said an informal survey by one of his staff members quoted prices of $30 a bushel at roadside markets in Carroll and Frederick County earlier this week, double last year's price.

"My guess is that any place that says they have Maryland peaches will be charging more for them this year," Mr. West said.

But Evan Milburn, co-owner of Milburn Orchard near Elkton, said he hasn't raised his roadside market prices, despite the loss of 80 percent of his crop. He said he charges $12.50 for a peach basket, which is about half a bushel.

"That's not our customers' problem," Mr. Milburn said of the crop losses. "That's our problem."

To keep an ample supply of fresh peaches for his retail customers, Mr. Milburn said, he has cut back on his wholesale shipments to area stores and out-of-state buyers.

Christopher Walsh, a horticulture professor with the University of Maryland College Park, said major supermarket chains such as Giant and Safeway get peaches from big production states, including California, South Carolina, Georgia and New Jersey. These regions, he said, have normal crops, and he does not think the shortage of local peaches will affect supermarket prices.

Rinehart Orchard, just outside of Ringgold in Washington County, is located in one of the regions hurt most by last winter's severe freeze.

"As far as I know there are no peaches in this area," said John D. Rinehart, who manages the family orchard. "When the temperatures dropped to 22 below zero last winter, it froze the buds on the trees. The trees have plenty of leaves, but no fruit."

Mr. Rinehart said in normal years he harvests 15,000 to 20,000 bushels from his 100 acres of peach trees.

Peach crops in neighboring states were also hit hard by the winter cold. Mr. West said that Pennsylvania's harvest, normally 10 times the size of Maryland's, was destroyed.

West Virginia reported no significant production this year, Mr. West said. Growers in West Virginia normally harvest between 18 and 20 million pounds, about double the size of Maryland's peach industry. And Virginia's crop will be 60 percent smaller this year, Mr. West said.

Growers in Delaware fared better. The peach crop there is expected to total 3 million pounds this year, down from 4 million in 1993.

Mr. Walsh, the University of Maryland horticulture professor, said peach growers in Western Maryland have lost their crops at least four times in the past 15 years. He said this "has translated into a number of bankruptcies and reduced size of the industry."

Despite the shortage of rain that turned some lawns in the Baltimore area brown in recent weeks, Mr. West said there is no indication of serious damage to the state's major crops, including corn and soybeans.

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