Iowa Public Television


Illinois Peach Harvest Looks Steady Despite May Storm

posted on July 17, 2009

ST. LOUIS -- Sara Lipe glanced at her southern Illinois peach orchard after winds topping more than 100 mph tore through in May and felt dread in the pit of her stomach.

Limbs had been snapped off trees, and fruit ripped from those still attached. Hail dented much of the rest.

"When I saw peaches on the ground, my heart went in my throat and I was just sick," Lipe said. But "then I looked around and said, 'I can make this work. Things will be OK.'"

She did, and they are. Peach growers statewide say they're satisfied with their early harvests, having mercifully dodged spring freezes that typically take their toll on blossoms and weathered the May storm that cost the region $26 million. Nationwide, some expect peach production to slip slightly, but not enough to cause consumers concern.

"It's turning out pretty well. I think we'll be all right," said Lipe, 44, a fourth-generation grower.

She expects this year's harvest to be slightly off from last year but a big leap from the horrific 2007 growing season, when a late-winter freeze wiped out her first crop since taking over the 25-acre orchard near Carbondale.

Now, she says, "in spite of everything, I think we'll still have quite a few peaches."

In a state better known for corn and soybeans, Illinois growers turned out 8,730 tons of peaches last year, down from 11,370 tons in 2006 but better than the freeze-decimated output of just 100 tons in 2007. Neighboring Missouri produced about 6,100 tons last year, up from just 15 tons during the dismal 2007 season and in line with the 6,390 tons the year before that.

As of late April, Illinois growers were expected to produce more than 12,200 tons this year, up 40 percent from the year before, while Missouri peach orchards were expected to yield about 6,200 tons, a 2 percent increase, according to Kay Rentzel, the National Peach Council's director.

But those forecasts don't take into account the May storm that raked southern Illinois or other foul weather that may have cut into the harvest in the more than 40 states that together produced 1.1 million tons of peaches last year.

Dry conditions and other problems have forced California - the nation's peach king, accounting for about three-quarters of the U.S. output - to cut its expectations twice in recent months, Rentzel said. In southern Georgia, two late-winter freezes savaged blossoms, and recent temperatures that soared into the 100s didn't help. Some growers there say their production is about one-third of the norm.

Rentzel's best guess, at least now, is that U.S. peach production might slip 10 to 15 percent - not enough for consumers to see much of a difference in supermarket produce aisles.

"Growers plant various varieties that mature and are harvested at different times, so there's a steady supply to the marketplace," she said by telephone from her Dillsburg, Pa., home.

At the Eckert's Country Store and Farms, with three Illinois sites in suburban St. Louis, Chris Eckert said the family-run business' 200 acres of peach trees generally produce 60,000 to 80,000 bushels. He expects output this year to be on the lower end of that range because rain that made the soft fruit bigger this year also cut into pollination, shrinking the yield.

"It's not quite a full crop, but it's a good crop," said Eckert, president of the business that supplies its country store and regional supermarkets as far away as Minnesota, Chicago and Kansas City, Mo.

Hail, usually a curse to peach growers, left Eckert's trees alone this year, leaving him feeling lucky.

Around the rolling hills of southern Illinois near Alto Pass, Wayne "Ren" Sirles also feels a bit blessed as he tends to his roughly 100-acre peach orchard that's been in the family for more than a century. The May storm that socked the region sidestepped Sirles' orchard, and the fourth-generation grower who supplies regional Wal-Marts and supermarkets said his crop "looks very good."

He expects his trees to put forth 40,000 to 45,000 bushels of peaches this year, consistent with last year's output - with a caveat.

"We're really at the mercy of Mother Nature. She dictates what happens most of the time," he said. "Things can change tomorrow (for the worse), and the weather could turn completely opposite. I'll qualify this by saying that as of today, we anticipate a good crop."

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