If you measure out the days of summer in fat, juicy peaches, head for the canned goods department. Roadside stands, supermarkets and orchards will offer a meager collection, area farmers predict, and prices will be considerably higher than last year's, because of the worst peach-growing season in memory.
"There won't be none, that's just it," said Galen Pryor of Pryor's Orchards near Thurmont, Md. "You might see one peach on every three trees. And it's just not profitable to pick it."
Many peaches come to the Washington market from West Virginia, where 17 million pounds are harvested in a typical year. This year, state agriculture agents expect a negligible harvest there.
Maryland orchards normally produce 19 million pounds of peaches annually; current estimates are for 6 million this year. Virginia officials project a harvest this year of 2 million pounds, down from 30 million pounds most years.
Virginia's peach harvest is expected to be even smaller than the disastrous harvest of 1921 -- the smallest harvest since record-keeping began in 1899. State agriculture officials say some growers remember some bad years in the '30s, but none like this.
Freakish weather conditions warmed the peach trees to summertime temperatures in December, then blasted them to death with subzero temperatures 20 days later. When a few stubborn blossoms came out in spring, they were greeted with a sudden frost.
If most peach growers didn't grow apples as well, agriculture officials said, a lot of them would be out of business. As things stand now, this year's disaster has persuaded the owners of Bromley Orchards in Smithsburg, Md., that they have to sell out.
"We have maybe 650 acres of peach trees . . . and we have no peaches to sell this year," said Ann Bromley, who manages the 1,100-acre orchard with her husband and two sons. "We were hoping a good peach crop would put us in a more stable financial situation. Now, with the peach crop failure, we will have to sell. This has totally wiped us out."
"It's a very sad situation," said Bromley, noting that the orchards have been in the family since 1903. "I feel very sorry for my sons, if this thing turns out badly. They're not prepared for anything else except farming. This is the only thing they ever wanted to do."
The effect of the shortage on prices remains to be seen, for the peak season isn't until July and August. "Lord only knows what it will go up to," said Jarvis Cain, a fruit marketing specialist at the University of Maryland.
Last year, peaches were selling for about 20 cents a pound wholesale. Even if peaches went up to 50 cents a pound wholesale this year, said Red Rowley of the Virginia Department of Agriculture -- a price that is higher than he expects -- the state's peaches would net farmers just $1 million, compared to around $4.5 million most years.
At Clarendon Natural Foods in Arlington, peaches were selling yesterday for $1.49 a pound, up from 99 cents a pound about this time last year, according to manager Howard Field.
At the Reston Farm Market, peaches were going for 90 cents a pound. "The prices should dip just a little when the peach season starts, said Matt Conway, "except it won't really get going this year."
Few peaches are likely to be imported to the area because the crop is bad along most of the East Coast, officials said.
Peaches are too delicate to transport in large quantities from central states or California.
"Peaches are like ice cream cones," explained grower John Sleeter of Hill High Orchards in Round Hill, Va. "When they're ready you have to eat them." Sleeter said he has 275 acres of peach trees but no peaches.
Peach growers knew they were in trouble in late January when they went into their orchards and cut into the peach buds, which remain dormant during the winter. "You should see green tissue in the center," Sleeter said. "But in most cases what you saw was very brown centers and you knew it was going to die."
More problems were ahead. The buds that survived the ravages of winter started to swell and blossom in early April. But on April 10 they were struck by a cold snap. Temperatures in Sharpsburg, Md., for example, averaged just 24 degrees, and most of the surviving buds there died.
To compound the problems, the trunks of many peach trees cracked open in the spring, increasing the risk of fungus.
Most trees are expected to survive, however. Growers are trimming their branches and saving on pesticide and harvesting costs.
And, of course, they are hoping that this year's disaster was the worst they'll ever see. "I guess you go for another year," said Pryor. "That's just about it."