Crop recovery in South affects peach markets


Issue Date: August 8, 2018
By Ching Lee

With nationwide harvest in full force—including recovering production in the southern U.S.—California peach growers, shippers and packers say they face a tougher marketing year, particularly this time of the season.

Marc Isaak of WMJ Farms, a grower-shipper-packer in Tulare County, said prices were good early in the season when supplies tend to be light, but with other states now competing in the market, "everything seems to be in the tank."

"Most everything is getting backed up because demand isn't as great," he added. "Plus, Washington is coming in with fruit now, and they compete against us."

This is in sharp contrast to last year, when a spring freeze wiped out most of the peach crop in South Carolina and Georgia, and "the whole country was open to California peaches," said Jon McClarty, president of HMC Farms, a grower-shipper-packer in Fresno County.

Though California remains the top U.S. producer of freestone peaches, states such as South Carolina, Georgia and New Jersey—which rank second, third and fourth, respectively—"have an impact on our market," McClarty said.

"Last year, you could really feel that there was no fruit, with people calling for California peaches in the middle of Georgia," he said. "There were people calling from everywhere."

Reports indicate some Georgia peach farmers have suffered a similar fate again this year, with their early varieties particularly short. South Carolina, however, has reported a robust crop. California shippers say current prices do not reflect a shortage of peaches in the U.S. market, especially with Washington peaches now entering the scene.

In some years, when prices drop below $10 a box late in the season, Issak said it's more beneficial to send that fruit to processing, typically the freezer, to avoid packing costs. But he noted there's not much demand for freezer peaches this year, with fruit distributors not "actively looking for fruit" aside from what was already contracted.

"Hopefully, we'll find some active markets here pretty soon," he said.

California growers reported a lighter crop at the start of the season, with frost and hail damaging some early varieties. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in May forecast the state's freestone crop at 230,000 tons, down 18 percent from last year.

McClarty described this year's crop as "slightly below average," with early varieties harvested in May and early June being the lightest.

Isaak observed frost damage mainly in his white peaches; ironically, lack of chilling hours also reduced overall fruit set, he said.

Jeff Simonian of Simonian Fruit Co. in Fresno County said certain early varieties were off by as much as 20 to 50 percent due to frost damage. But he noted production levels of midseason varieties that are now being harvested "have been more normal."

"With an early-season variety, we typically sell the fruit for more money, but there's less production on the trees and not enough supply," he said. "As we move into the season, we'll get more production on the varieties."

McClarty said production in recent years has been trending down due to inadequate chill hours. Though yields have improved this year, he said "we're just not seeing some of these much larger crops that we've seen in the past."

A shorter crop means fruit sizes are larger this year, growers said. They also reported good fruit quality and flavor. Harvest in the Central Valley, where most freestone peaches are grown, is expected to go into September.

McClarty said triple-digit temperatures in recent weeks have affected fruit quality and harvest scheduling.

"We just have to manage things a little bit differently," he said. "You're not picking full days because of the heat. Worker safety is always a priority."

Though work crews have not been abundant, growers and packers said they've managed to find enough help to harvest their crops. The start of the season was more challenging, McClarty said, as employees were needed to harvest and thin trees at the same time, while demand for harvest crews was high for blueberries and cherries. What helped, Isaak said, was the lighter cherry crop this year, as cherry harvest "usually pulls a lot of people away from us when the crop is big."

The "big crunch" for his region, Simonian said, occurs later this month and in September, when raisin harvest starts. By then, peach orchards will be competing with other fruits and crops for harvest crews.

"We'll even lose some people traveling to Washington state to pick apples," he said.

With a lighter fruit set this year, Yolo County grower Fred Manas said he has not had to thin his trees as much, "which is good, because that's all labor." Due to the location of his orchard in Esparto, he said he "lucked out" from the spring frost doing any damage to his crop, though he noted growers in the Capay Valley were hit.

Manas markets most of his crop directly to customers who visit his farm and store, although this is the first year he is also selling peaches to a Sacramento retailer. He noted sales and traffic to the farm have been "slower than normal" this year and thinks wildfires may have something to do with it.

"We've got a lot of people who come down from Lake County and a lot of roads are blocked off," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.