It’s peach season, but Austinites likely won’t be seeing any Fredericksburg peaches in grocery stores any time soon after a combination of freezing weather and hailstorms decimated more than 90 percent of the crop in Gillespie County.
“The damage is pretty widespread,” said Jamey Vogel, owner of Vogel Orchard in Stonewall and president of the Hill Country Fruit Council.
The loss of most of this year’s crop is just the latest setback in what has been a tough decade for Hill Country peach farmers. Smaller growers have disappeared, and others have been forced to grow additional crops to survive.
Farmers around Stonewall and Fredericksburg point to a series of weather events that decimated the 2013 peach crop, along with other fruit crops such as plums and apricots. The area experienced a warmer than normal winter, but peaches need a certain number of hours below 45 degrees to produce a healthy crop. Then, two frosts hit late in the season — one in March and the other in April — that wiped out most of the crop.
The peaches that were left on the trees at some farms were torn apart in a recent storm that pummeled them with hail as big as tennis balls.
Vogel said any peaches that survived in his orchard will be available at roadside stands in Stonewall and Fredericksburg.
Texas typically produces 23 million pounds of peaches a year, with an annual production value of about $33 million, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Gillespie County has about 1,400 acres of commercial peach orchards, and 40 percent of the state’s peaches come from the area, according to the Hill Country Fruit Council.
The wild spring weather comes on the heels of years of drought leaving some to question whether the Hill Country is the right place to grow peaches anymore. Many farmers have diversified their crops, and wineries have become an important part of the landscape, although grape-growers also lost part of their crops to the hailstorm.
“We wish the weather would go back to normal,” said Ricky Priess, owner of Gold Orchards in Stonewall.
Priess, whose family has been growing peaches since 1940, said that he has lost has entire crop for the year. As he drives through 50 acres of orchards that should be heavy with fruit, he shakes his head.
Over the past 10 years, he’s had five years with very small crops or no crops at all. He’s only had a bumper crop in 2010. In the past four years, he’s lost 20 acres of peach trees.
“The trees are very stressed from the last six or seven years of this weather,” Priess said. “They are kind of like we are. If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you can work, but you’re not very productive.”
He has crop insurance, but payouts are calculated based on a five-year average of crop sizes. After several years of small crops, payouts are dropping, Priess said.
In good years, Gillespie County averaged 200 bushels of peaches an acre. Lately the county has averaged closer to 71 bushels per acre, he said, causing those crop insurance payouts to plummet.
“That safety net is getting smaller all the time, and the price of everything from fertilizer to fuel is going up,” Priess said.
Like other growers, he’s been forced to diversify, raising hay, grains, goats and cattle on his land, Priess said. “I try to do that for a little extra money. But everything we’ve been doing for extra money we’ve been living off of lately.”
Priess remains optimistic. The orchard’s roadside stand is stocked with peach preserves, jarred peaches and peach ice cream made from last year’s crop. No crop this year means the trees can rest up for next season, he said.
Four miles down the road, Studebaker Farm lost 95 percent of its peach crop, said owner Russ Studebaker. The hailstorm didn’t hit as hard there, but the frost wiped almost everything out.
A few trees bearing a variety of peach that ripens in July are still left.
About 100 trees sit under a huge protective white plastic tent held up by a metal frame. Mid-May is normally when ripe peaches would be picked and hauled to roadside stands, but some of the only ripe peaches in the area are under that tent.
The high tunnel, as it is called, was paid for through a program offered by the state and the Texas Fruit Growers Association. When it was first suggested, Studebaker wasn’t completely sold but decided to try it out. If the trees flopped, he thought, he could always grow tomatoes under the tent.
“Now, I’m looking to get five more,” he said. “Eventually, maybe 10 or so.”
The high tunnel insulates the trees enough to prevent them from freezing, even in 20-degree weather, Studebaker said. He can also control the amount of sun and water the trees receive by adding or removing the plastic, insuring that the fruit is sweet and the right size.
The high tunnels cost more than $2,000 each and can cover about 150 trees. It’s an expensive prospect, but Studebaker is hoping they’ll pay for themselves.
“I think over time you’ll see more of these,” Studebaker said.
Studebaker uses a series of proactive farming techniques, such as a hormone treatment to delay the blooming period until warmer days. On freezing nights this year, he used a helicopter to blow warm air from hay fires onto his trees.
“We have to fight to keep the orchards healthy,” Studebaker said. “Texas is a tough place. We go from drought to flood to drought. You have to be persistent.”