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Peaches are bountiful again after last year's poor crop. But it's more mixed in one Midwest state

Customers shop for peaches last year (2023) at Flamm Orchards in Cobden, Illinois
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Customers shop for peaches last year at Flamm Orchards in Cobden, Illinois.

The peach crop across the U.S. is much better this summer than it was last year when cold temperatures affected crops in Georgia and South Carolina. Yet in southern Illinois, while some orchards are getting a bumper crop, others are having yet another year of low production.

Peach production for the larger orchards in deep southern Illinois appears to have bounced back after a rough year last summer — but it was a second down year in a row for a grower east of St. Louis.

“We’re really happy with where our peaches are at right now,” said Austin Flamm, who runs Flamm Orchards near Cobden about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis.

Last year, a cold spell in the winter knocked out all but 10% of their crop. It was the worst loss in 16 seasons for the fruit and vegetable farming family.

However, this year’s weather largely cooperated, and peach production at Flamm’s will stand at 100%. In fact, the crop was so plentiful Flamm and his team had to trim back some trees earlier this year.

“That’s a good problem because it means you have a big, full crop,” Flamm said.

Rendleman Orchards in Alto Pass, just a couple of miles from Flamm’s, had a similar year.

But at Eckert’s Inc. in Belleville, this year’s weather led to another down year — about 50% production, said Chris Eckert, the company’s president.

“The ultimate production is going to be about the same,” Eckert said. “I think the way it happened and the ultimate outcome is a little different.”

Elario Castro, 30, prunes peach trees on April 12 at Flamm Orchards near Cobden, Illinois.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Elario Castro, 30, prunes peach trees on April 12 at Flamm Orchards near Cobden, Illinois.

Subzero temperatures in mid-January and frost when the trees were blooming in March were the main culprits, he said.

“The concerning thing, from where I sit, is it's not frequently that we have two years in a row with this kind of outcome,” Eckert said. “One: That's hard to endure financially. And two: How much of this is a trend versus kind of circumstance — and are we going to be expecting more of this as time goes by?”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a crop insurance program for peaches, which Eckert said has been needed for the past two years.

“If we were to have two events of this magnitude without crop insurance, that’s kind of a business-ending event because the financial losses would be so catastrophic that you just couldn’t go on,” Eckert said.

Exactly which Illinois orchards felt the loss this peach season depends on geography, said Raghela Scavuzzo, executive director of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association.

“It's always a challenge because you're up against weather, and you never know what's going to happen,” Scavuzzo said.

Smaller orchards in Calhoun County, which sits between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers north of St. Louis, felt the worst of the cold. Some even had a total loss because of a late freeze, she said.

“There’s no guarantee in anything you do, but the farmers do it because they love feeding their community,” Scavuzzo said.

Consumers will notice prices return to normal in southern Illinois, Flamm said. With the short supply last summer, Flamm’s peaches increased about 30% in price, and Eckert’s jumped about 20%.

Chris Eckert, president of Eckert’s Inc., assesses some of his peaches at the orchard in Belleville, Illinois. “Goes to show you never can be too arrogant in this business, because Mother Nature is always going to treat you to some humble pie,” Eckert said.
Will Bauer
St. Louis Public Radio
Chris Eckert, president of Eckert’s Inc., assesses some of his peaches last year at an orchard in Belleville, Illinois.

This year, Eckert estimates prices dropped about 15% from last year, but they could change as the summer progresses. As a whole, prices dipped because South Carolina and Georgia — two of the biggest peach producers — had big bounce back years after also struggling last year.

With the more normal production at the orchard, consumers will also notice more peaches at local farmers markets and in their grocery stores, Scavuzzo said. Last year, Flamm did not sell wholesale to local grocery stores because he was so short.

Thanks to the warm weather, peaches at both Flamm’s and Eckert’s arrived a few weeks earlier than anticipated. Normally, peach season starts in July, but they came in June.

“Not the earliest we’ve ever picked, but maybe the second-earliest crop we’ve ever picked,” Eckert said. “The peaches are nice and taste great.”

The good news is that the end of the season will largely remain unchanged and should last until the end of August, Flamm said.

“It really just extends our season,” he said. “It seems like when things start early, they don't necessarily end early. They still end about on time.”

This story first appeared on St. Louis Public Radio. This version is being made available through Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.