Area fruit crop wiped out

Monday, July 2, 2007
One peach hung on a tree that would normally produce a multitude of fruit as David Diebold examined one he picked. This year's late frost devastated fruit crops across the region, leading to a $500,000 drop in revenue for Diebold Orchards. (AARON EISENHAUER

Most years David Diebold would have plenty of peaches and apples to sell to the customers who visit his Benton, Mo., store every summer looking for the fresh fruit. The fruit would be as fresh as possible, coming from his own orchards in the gently rolling north Scott County hills.

Not this year.

"I'm the luckiest man in Southeast Missouri," Diebold said, despite the fact that he's looking at about $500,000 in lost revenue from crop devastation this year. He's lucky because unlike those customers, Diebold will actually get to enjoy at least a few ultra-fresh, locally grown peaches. The masses, however, will not. There's just not enough.

An early spring freeze wiped out nearly all of Diebold's fruit. Not far away at Jackson's Pioneer Orchard, the apple and peach crops were completely wiped out, said orchard owner Stanley Beggs.

Right about now, fresh peaches and apples from places like Diebold Orchards in Benton and Pioneer Orchard would be flooding the local produce market. But this year any peaches or apples for sale won't come from the area, leaving customers who buy the fruit disappointed and hurting the wallets of local producers.

The early golden apple, shown here, is the only variety of apples at Diebold Orchards that has produced a crop worth maintaining and harvesting.

Throughout much of Missouri and Illinois the story is the same.

"The southern part of the state was affected so bad there's no peach crop and very, very few apples," University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Maurice Ogutu said.

Growers in Missouri have reported similar losses. Diebold said he's able to harvest an average of one peach for every tree, and the few apples he's been able to harvest have been damaged and misshapen by frost.

The Flamm family operation near Cobden, Mo., can attest. The family's stand at the weekly Cape Girardeau Farmers Market offered vegetables like potatoes, cauliflower and peppers, but no fruit.

"All our fruit was wiped out," Ellie Flamm said.

A survey of the booths at the farmers market reveals more of the same -- plentiful vegetables but little fruit other than cold-hearty blackberries. Products sold at the market must be locally grown, but this year there are no locally grown peaches or apples for sale.

Some blackberries and strawberries are available and a sparse supply of blueberries, and as the season goes on more melons will be available, said farmers market president Marilyn Peters.

"We've never had a year where all the fruit was gone," Peters, whose involvement goes back 22 years, said of the peach and apple shortage.

The shortage disappoints Mary Mims, whose shopping bag was full of vegetables Thursday, but none of the peaches the Alabama native loves.

"I've been just not getting them, or getting frozen peaches," said Mims, who likes to cook with the fruit. She was going to try pickling peaches this year, but without fresh fruit, she can't.

The shortage has also affected growers in the southeastern United States, so any fruit that reaches Southeast Missouri must be shipped long distances.

The early-April cold was bad enough on its own, but extremely warm temperatures immediately preceded the cold snap that sent official recorded temperatures into the teens and 20s. In Cape Girardeau the officially recorded low was 18 degrees April 8. On March 30 the high was 83.

The warmth caused trees to flower early, so when the extreme cold hit, they were more vulnerable.

Grapes were heavily affected as well, for the same reasons. But grapevines have the ability to grow a second crop, unlike apples and peaches, so there has been some recovery, said Jim Anderson, director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board.

In April Anderson said his group was estimating an 80 percent loss. Since then, those estimates have been revised downward, with some varieties experiencing a 60 to 70 percent loss, others only a 30 to 40 percent loss.

But Anderson said, "We're still not out of the woods yet."

The early spring freeze weakened many vines, making them more susceptible to harsh conditions that could arise this summer.

Anderson said in his 20 years with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, he's never seen such a devastating spring freeze, or such an extreme change in weather as what occurred between late March and early April.

The freeze was bad enough to declare an emergency. On Friday the USDA approved a state request for disaster assistance to 114 Missouri counties due to the spring freeze. The approval makes farmers in every Missouri county eligible for low-interest emergency loans from the USDA.

Even with the total destruction of their fruit crops, farmers like Diebold and Beggs say they're prepared for the economic consequences. Diversification has allowed them to sustain such losses without totally destroying their businesses, they say.

"Really, the '70s and the '80s taught me a lesson," said Diebold, whose peach and apple sales usually make up about 40 percent of his business.

"God does what he's going to do. We've had several good years in a row, and we're going to lose a crop once in a while. If you grow on the basis that you're going to have a full bumper crop every time, you're not going to make it."

335-6611, extension 182

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