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At First Blush, a Great Season

Peach Crop Rebounds After a Weak 2007

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008; Page F01

DELAPLANE -- There are five pick-your-own orchards along the Virginia Peach Way, a winding stretch of country road at the foothills of the Shenandoah. But last summer, it was hard to find peaches here. A three-day spring freeze wiped out more than 80 percent of the crop. The following drought made it tough for remaining fruit to survive.

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Not this year. At Hollin Farms, the trees on the hill were so laden with fruit last week that the ping-pong-ball-size peaches looked more like giant clusters of grapes. Owners Tom Davenport and his son Matt planned to thin the trees, knocking off fruit to ensure that each peach grows big and sweet, before their season takes off this weekend. "This is the prettiest peach crop I've ever had," Tom Davenport says. He plans to sell pick-your-own peaches from his 800-tree orchard for $10 a peck (about 11 pounds), down from $16 last year.

"It's a good crop for everything," agrees Bill Green, who grows peaches, cherries and blueberries six miles down the road at Hartland Orchards. "There's great quantity and quality."

According to the USDA, 2008 is shaping up as an "adequate" year for peaches nationally. But that judgment refers primarily to California, which accounts for more than half of the country's production (more than twice as many peaches as Georgia's crop, for example).

For farmers from Virginia to Pennsylvania who supply peaches to the area, it's a bumper year. And when it comes to this fruit, buying local matters. Unlike apples, bananas and oranges, peaches don't travel or store well. "If I had to name three things you need to buy at a farmers market, peaches would be one of them," says Russ Parsons, author of "How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor From Farm to Table." (His other picks are tomatoes and strawberries.) "A great peach is like Mozart. It's got grandeur."

Several factors are responsible for this year's bounty. First, local farms avoided the kind of spring frost or freeze that hurt crops in 2007. It was 26 degrees on Easter last year, Matt Davenport remembers. The temperature stayed below freezing for three days, killing most the peach blossoms. Davenport, admittedly, was hit harder than some other farmers, who went on to produce a decent-size crop, and one packed with flavor thanks to the lack of summer rain.

This year, there has been plenty of rain: Warrenton, the closest weather station to the Peach Way, received 14.78 inches of rain between April and June vs. 6.97 inches in the same period last year.

But what might have helped most were last year's tough conditions. "The trees had a good rest last year, and now they're putting a lot of energy into creating more fruit," Davenport says. "We've had enormous blossoming."

That's a boon for farmers, not because they end up with more fruit but because it offers them control. The key to a flavorful crop is managing how much fruit grows on each tree and how much water it receives. Ideally, there should be about four inches of space between each fruit. That allows them enough room to grow and just enough water, without irrigation, and nutrients to offer complex flavor.

To reduce the number of fruits, Davenport and others use large sticks with rubber hoses attached to them to beat the trees to remove excess fruit. He generally does that twice a growing season; nature (a frost or a hailstorm) does the rest of the work. This year, farmers on the Peach Way say they are thinning three times, at least. "I've done more thinning than ever before," says Hartland's Green, who has been running his orchard for 12 years.

The earliest peaches from the Peach Way are usually ready around July 4. But this year's rainy spring delayed the start of their season until this week. First come the clingstone varieties, such as Garnet Beauties and Red Havens, which usually are used for canning but are great for eating fresh, too. At the end of July and through August, the popular freestone varieties and white peaches arrive: White Ladies, John Boys, Lorings, Red Skins and the delicious and increasingly hard to find Elbertas. This heirloom variety has wonderful aroma and sweet flesh but has been dropped by most producers because of its fuzzy skin and because it forms a small beak at the bottom of the fruit that tends to break off during packing and shipping, which can cause spoilage.

Farmers insist that, with the exception of the Elberta, buyers won't really be able to taste the difference between yellow and white varieties. But there are distinct differences between the flavors of a perfectly ripened peach and one picked too early or late. To pick a peach, look for a background color with a yellow-orangey cast and no green. The golden color is a sign of maturity, which means the sugar has built up inside the fruit to deliver flavor. The red blush on a peach is no indication of ripeness but a result of genetics. (Breeders know red peaches sell.)

Next, trust your nose. A ripe peach has penetrating fragrance. As with a mango, you should be able to smell it from across the room. Tom Davenport says many local Bolivian families cart away bushels of his peaches and use some of the fruit to perfume the rooms in their homes.

The softness is least important. A firm peach will ripen on the counter in a few days. And it's better to have one that's a bit firm than one that's soft and bruised. Be sure not to refrigerate peaches until they are fully ripe. A mealy, dry texture is a sign of chill damage.

Already, the peaches are arriving at farmers markets. At the 14th and U Street market on Saturday, there were baskets of ripe yellow peaches from Pennsylvania and, for the first time this season, early varieties of white peaches, too. Market manager Luke Hall says he took home some white peaches and grilled them for a simple dessert. "It's going to be a good summer," he said.

For information about the Peach Way, visit http://hollinfarms.com/pages/peachway.html.


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