Winter withers Ohio’s peaches

Puny crop blamed on bitter cold that killed many farmers’ trees

Celestino Carranza cuts down a dead peach tree at MacQueen Orchards in Holland. Jeff MacQueen, the orchard's owner, said the cold winter had killed about half the orchard’s peach tree acreage.
Celestino Carranza cuts down a dead peach tree at MacQueen Orchards in Holland. Jeff MacQueen, the orchard's owner, said the cold winter had killed about half the orchard’s peach tree acreage.

January’s infamous polar vortex has claimed yet another victim: fresh peaches grown in northwest Ohio, usually a tasty treat this time of year.

Peach trees in Ohio, Michigan, and parts of western Pennsylvania were devastated by sub-zero temperature this last winter, leading to an August crop that could barely fill a barn.

Ohio fruit farmers, who almost exclusively sell their products at local markets, have had to supplement their peaches with produce from elsewhere to have any peaches to sell to customers.

“There’s not much to talk about with the peach crop because, frankly, there isn’t one,” said Bill Dodd, president of the Ohio Fruit Growers Marketing Association.

“There might have been a few farms down south by the Ohio River that weren’t affected, but for the most part this year was a disaster,” he said.

At MacQueen Orchards in Holland, owner Jeff MacQueen had 20 acres of peach trees and got just 2 percent of his normal crop. Nearly 10 acres of trees died as a result of the freezing temperatures in January.

With his peach crop puny, Mr. MacQueen contacted a friend in western Michigan whose peach crop largely escaped damage. He has been bringing in Red Haven and other varieties to sell.

On Friday, workers at his orchard were busy cutting down dead peach trees and removing them to make way for new trees.

“I have 10 acres of young stuff, maybe one to five-years-old that’s good. But the older trees that are 6-to-15, they seemed not to do as well,” Mr. MacQueen said.

“When it got near 20 below this winter with the air temp, that pretty much killed them. I ordered 1,500 trees to replant but it takes three to four years for a tree to bear fruit,” he said. “That’s why you never plant peach trees all at once because they’re difficult.”

At Johnston Fruit Farm in Swanton, owner Martha Mora said her late father, Dale Johnston, always warned her about the perils of peach trees in northern climates like Ohio.

“Dad always said, ‘You never plant more peaches than you can afford to lose,’” she said.

This year, Johnston Fruit Farms lost its entire crop of peaches.

“Losing peach blossoms and the peach crop, that’s sort of a normal thing that happens in Ohio from time to time,” she said. “But as a result of last winter’s frost we lost most of our older peach orchard. We lost the trees themselves.”

Ms. Mora said the farm had some trees that were planted three years ago that survived pretty well, but older ones died.

“We had made plans to plant 600 new trees this spring, which we planted and they are doing quite well. But we lost 60 percent of our trees. I’m considering taking out all the older plantings and just using the newer trees … but planting peaches is kind of like going to the casino,” Ms. Mora said.

Bennett’s Orchard in Ottawa Lake, Mich., also saw its peach orchard devastated. The farm, which could not be reached for comment, posted a notice on its Web site that it had no peaches this summer and will have to replant.

Ohio has never been a big state for peaches, producing just 5,370 tons in 2013, with none of that used by the food industry. Ohio peaches usually are sold directly to consumers by farmers or local outlets.

By contrast, in 2013 California — the top state — produced 648,000 tons of peaches.

Still, Mr. Dodd, of the fruit growers association, said peaches are important to Ohio fruit farmers because they represent another seasonal crop from which a farmer can derive income.

“It’s still a pretty small crop, but it provides good cash flow,” he said.

Mike Gastier, an agricultural agent with the Ohio State University Extension Service office in Huron County, said the difficulty with growing peaches is the trees themselves have short lifespans and aren’t hardy enough to handle sub-zero temperatures well.

“At temperatures below -10, particularly with wind, the wood freezes and that will kill the whole tree,” Mr. Gastier said.

In the Toledo area, the cold reached -15 one night.

“Peach trees are not long-lived. You get 20 years at most — about half the life expectancy of an apple tree — but this year we did lose more than we normally would,” Mr. Gastier said.

While consumers will have a limited supply of peaches to sate their appetites, apple lovers have a bountiful season.

“The apple buds were not harmed at all and the growing conditions have been ideal,” Ms. Mora said. “We have already harvested four varieties of apples. This is going to be a great apple crop,” she said.

Contact Jon Chavez at: or 419-724-6128.