Peach crop in Ohio is the pits this year

Laura Arenschield, The Columbus Dispatch

May 14, 2014

UTICA, Ohio - In a normal year, the peach trees at Branstool Orchards would be dotted with blossoms by now, bright little signs that summer, sunshine and sweet, juicy fruit are on their way.

But this wasn't a normal year, and at Branstool Orchards in Licking County, the peach trees aren't blooming.

Sub-zero winds from the Arctic blew over central Ohio this winter, knocking temperatures from above-freezing to negative digits in a matter of days.

Marshall Branstool, who owns Branstool Orchards, said that swing is what got them.

One day in January, he said, it was 47 degrees. The next day? Minus 8.

Buds on the 5,200 peach trees at Branstool Orchards came in as tiny nubs but turned black instead of green.

That means bad news for devotees who buy Branstool peaches at the Clintonville Farmers Market and at Branstool Orchards. With no peaches growing, he has none to sell.

"All of Ohio got hit," he said.

So did most of Michigan and parts of Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Peach farmers brought bud samples to an Ohio Fruit Growers Marketing Association meeting in February, and every bud was dead, said Bill Dodd, president of the association.

"Whether you want to say it was a polar vortex or whether you just want to say it was really, really cold, the peaches couldn't survive that, so we're looking at a difficult peach season here in Ohio," Dodd said. "Mother Nature can be an evil wench sometimes."

Three weeks ago, temperatures along a ridge near the South Carolina/Georgia border dropped to the low 20s, said Amy London, director of the South Carolina Peach Council. That freeze knocked out about 40 percent of South Carolina's peach crop - a tough hit for a state that is the second-leading producer of peaches in the country behind California.

Branstool might buy peaches from an orchard in Pennsylvania to sell at his orchard on Johnstown-Utica Road, but that purchase depends on whether the Pennsylvania orchard has enough peaches to sell.

He has insurance to cover part of the cost of losing a season of peaches, but it will barely cover his employees' salaries.

"Peaches are our bread and butter," he said. "But you gotta put on your big-boy pants and deal with it. The weather is out of our control."

All of Branstool's peach trees survived the polar vortex, so he's optimistic about next spring.

"It would have been a whole different ballgame if they died," he said.

One tree - just one - is sprouting tiny pink buds. He's marked that tree with orange and white flags and is watching it closely. If it bears fruit, he said, he'll probably keep the peaches for his employees and family.

Now, he and his employees are pruning the peach trees to make room for new growth, and new peaches, in 2015.

"We'll be back next year," he said.