ALTO PASS — This month’s cold weather hasn’t been kind to the budding daffodils and magnolias, but one delicate crop appears to have made it safely through the freezing temperatures.
Peaches are especially vulnerable to hard freezes in spring. In 2012, cold weather followed a “false spring” event similar to the warm February Southern Illinois has seen this year, leaving Rendleman Orchards with a reduced crop. A devastating late cold front in 2007 wiped out the orchard’s peaches and apples completely.
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That’s the way it could have gone this year for Southern Illinois — no local peach cobbler, no local peach pie. But right now, Rendleman President Wayne Sirles is feeling relieved.
“The majority of them, a lot of them, have survived, to all of our surprise,” Sirles said.
Things didn’t look so good two weeks ago. Encouraged by the warm weather, the peach buds had swelled early, but the temperature dipped down to 17 degrees one morning after a stretch of cold weather.
“We really thought we probably lost most of our crop,” Sirles said.
Rendleman’s trees did lose a fair amount of their pink blossoms, but many still remain on the trees.
“We only need about one in ten blooms to get a good crop,” he said.
Each blossom has the potential of becoming a peach, and right now, some of the pollinated blossoms contain a fuzzed yellow center — “baby peaches,” Sirles calls them. Growers don’t like to have too many peaches per tree, because they won’t wind up with commercial-sized fruit.
“Nobody wants to eat peaches that are the size of golf balls. The tree only has X amount of energy and can produce X amount of energy, and all that gets distributed to the fruit, so the fruit will be smaller if it has a lot of peaches on the tree,” Sirles said.
When that happens, growers thin out the blossoms. Right now, the orchard’s trees still have plenty of them.
Rendleman grows 14 varieties of peaches that have different genetic characteristics: some are clingstone peaches, with seeds that tend to cling to the flesh, and some are freestone, with pits that fall out when you break them open.
Those varieties all bloom at different times and produce fruit from early July through the end of August. Some varieties didn’t have a single blossom on them during the cold temperatures, and those trees didn’t see any damage to their fruit at all.
Some orchards utilize huge industrial fans to stir up the air when it gets cold, but that strategy wouldn’t work at Rendleman because it’s too hilly, Sirles said. Workers did spray the peach trees with a sugar and fertilizer solution in an effort to increase bud hardiness.
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Apples are less vulnerable because their bloom period is about two weeks later than peaches’. Right now, Rendleman’s apples are in the “green tip” stage — they’re just beginning to bloom.
“There’s those 14 days in there, where we don’t have to be as stressed out as we would with peaches,” Sirles said.
Working as a peach grower in the serene, rolling hills of Alto Pass might seem appealing, but every spring comes a lot of worry.
“It’s a highly stressful job,” Sirles said.