Peach orchards are blooming earlier than ever across New Jersey, signaling what promises to be a juicy and tasty bite for connoisseurs of this fruit.
“The conditions have been set up for a nice peach season,” said Ron Thomas, a supervisor at Sunny Slope Orchards on Greenwich Road in Bridgeton. “Our area in South Jersey is an excellent area because of our mild climate.”
This year’s lack of severe weather has boded well for the fruit, allowing them to grow plumper faster and without the bruising that would ruin the peach.
“We haven’t experienced hail or an excessive amount of water,” Thomas said.
The early harvest also has made peach farmers move much faster than they have in the past, thinning their orchards and then picking, packing and delivering their crop about two weeks earlier than typical, growers said.
“I’m exhausted,” Thomas said.
New Jersey ranks fourth in the country in peach production, behind California, South Carolina and Georgia, according to Jerry Frecon, agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Gloucester County.
“Historically, it’s been a major peach producer,” he said of the state. “We have good, well-drained soil.”
About 5,500 acres of farmland in the state grows peaches, with this year’s production expected to come in at more than 60,000 pounds, he said.
But while the state has worked hard to promote the fruit through the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council, its popularity appears to have grown stagnant in recent years.
“I don’t think young people eat peaches any more,” Frecon said.
Some of the peach orchards of the past have given way to homes, and in some cases they have been supplanted by vineyards.
“Eating a peach hasn’t caught on as drinking wine,” Frecon said.
Also in comparison to another Jersey staple — the blueberry — peaches have little culinary use outside of being eating fresh and are harder to grow and package due to its more delicate skin.
Judee Deficcio, owner of Pineland Farms, who operates a barn on Union Road in Hammonton and sells her fruit, including peaches and blueberries, at a cooperative in Trenton, said she also personally believes peaches has lost some of their appeal.
But she believes that is because fewer farms are offering the local fruit, and so people have less access to good peaches.
“I run into a lot of people who say ‘I haven’t had a good peach all year long,’” she said. “I tell them, ‘You haven’t had a local peach all year long.’”
Most supermarkets sell peaches from out of state or from local growers who are focused on mass production, which typically means they have been picked before they have had a chance to ripen on a tree. As a result, they have less flavor than truly tree-ripened peaches from a local farm, local growers said.
Deficcio said she always instructs customers to look for peaches with a golden color, whether it is yellow or red flesh, particularly near the stem. If the skin by the stem is green, the peach is not yet ripe. The biggest mistake is to squeeze a peach, which does nothing to determine ripeness and only bruises the delicate fruit, Deficcio said.
While other peach growers have left the field, some now concentrating solely on blueberries, Deficcio said she has resisted doing so even though blueberries are much easier to grow and package. She worries other states may catch up to New Jersey in terms of blueberry production.
“It’s kind of scary going forward, putting your eggs in any one basket,” Deficcio said.
She said peaches still have enough fans for her to stay in the business.
“Peaches are one of our best sellers,” Deficcio said.
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