Frank Carlson is 73 years old, and he’s never seen a year like this. Carlson and his three brothers own a farm in Harvard, and their 25 acres of peach trees are totally bare, victims of what some farmers dubbed a “Valentine’s Day massacre” that decimated New England’s peach crop.
The massacre was actually a confluence of abnormal weather patterns: milder-than-usual temperatures that stirred peach buds early, followed by near-record-low temperatures around Feb. 14 that crushed the nascent blooms.
“The only bloom we saw this year was on a broken branch laying on the ground, covered in a little bit of snow on the morning of the freeze,” Carlson said. Since then there have been no blossoms to speak of at Carlson Orchards, much less fruit, even though peaches usually make up about 40 percent of the farm’s total sales.
And it’s not just there. Massachusetts is hardly Georgia when it comes to peaches, but the crop is considerable: According to United States Department of Agriculture numbers, Massachusetts produced 1,455 tons of peaches in 2015.
The growing season isn’t finished, so the total reduction in 2016 hasn’t been measured yet. But 99 percent was Jon Clements’s estimate. Clements is a UMass Extension educator who specializes in commercial tree fruit production.
“That’s speculation,” Clements said. “But really, most orchards in Massachusetts don’t have a peach right now.”
In other parts of New England, conditions aren’t much better. Gary Keough, director of the New England Field Office of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, said that the peach crop has been crushed in all New England states. Keough said that self-reported data from their Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin suggested that across New England, 82 percent of peaches were in very poor condition, and 5 percent were in poor condition.
Other types of stone fruit were hit hard as well, said Glenn Cook, an Amesbury farmer who’s head of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau. They include plums, nectarines, apricots, and cherries.
“It’s been a total wipeout,” Cook said.
So New Englanders craving a juicy midsummer peach (or a plum from the icebox) won’t be getting it locally. This has bad implications for the flavor, said farmer Mark Parlee of Tyngsboro.
“If you pick a peach in Georgia and have to ship it up in New England, you have to pick it at an early stage of ripeness, when it’s still a little green, so it’ll be firm,” Parlee said. “When we grow peaches, we want them to be vine-ripened to make them sweeter and juicier.”
Parlee Farms also lost its 2 acres of peaches this year. Usually, if there’s a shortage of peaches on his farm, Parlee can call other farmers in the area to get some.
“This year there’s nobody to call,” he said. “I guess you’d have to call down to New Jersey, but even there it’s been a bad year.”
Carlson orders some Southern peaches, but it’s expensive, and most years a large portion of his profits come from people who pick their own fruit. This year, he said, the revenue from people picking their own peaches is “flat, nothing, zero.”
Not all fruit froze in February. Clements said that apples and pears are doing fine this year, so there’s some fruit to look forward to.
But the dearth of peaches has affected other crop sales. At Carlson Orchards, pick-your-own blueberry sales are down even though the fruit wasn’t harmed by the February freeze, because customers who come for peaches might tend to grab a few baskets of berries. “It’s a snowball effect,” Carlson said.
The peach shortage is a disappointment for consumers who look forward to baking cobblers in late August, or attending peach festivals in early September (one, in Connecticut, has rebranded as a corn fest). But it’s the farmers who are really being hit hard. Last year, Massachusetts peaches brought in more than $3.39 million in total revenue.
With revenue numbers approaching “flat, nothing, zero” across the board, farmers who grow mostly peaches are struggling.
Diane Ventura, a fifth-generation farmer at Ashley’s Peaches in Acushnet, said that the loss was devastating financially, as she grows almost all peaches (and some apples).
“I have to use all my retirement money for next year,” Ventura said, “and I won’t have any savings left, because I had to use it all.” Ventura and her husband, Ernest, had to start a crowd-funding campaign on GoFundMe in order to make ends meet this year.
She said that her family hadn’t lost an entire crop in a century of farming. “Let’s just hope lightning doesn’t strike twice,” Ventura said.Sophie Haigney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.