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It’s the peak of the peach season here in West Virginia, and lots of folks are clamoring to their nearby farmer’s markets to get some. But the late frost this year did a number on the state’s peach crop, and some say it was the worst frost in 30 years.
Orr’s Farm Market has been family owned for generations. It’s located in Martinsburg and has been around since 1995. But the legacy of the orchards that fuel this family market has been going strong since 1954 when it began with only 60 acres. Now, that number has increased to 1100.
“About 450 acres of it is peach trees,” said Katy Orr-Dove, Retail Market Manager at Orr’s Farm Market, “our other big crop is apples, and there are some adjoining family farms just south of us here, so it’s not all us, but a lot of it is us.”
The Orr’s say their property is home to the largest peach orchard in the state. About 15 to 20 percent of the family’s peach crop is kept and sold in-state at their farm market. The rest is sent for wholesale at various grocery stores along the East Coast.
But this year, farmers all across West Virginia, like the Orrs, saw a late frost that the state Department of Agriculture says was substantial. A department spokesman says the damage itself was hit or miss across the state, but the frost devastated many peach orchards in the Eastern Panhandle.
“It hurt all over West Virginia, the late frost,” said Walt Helmick, West Virginia’s Agriculture Commissioner, “but not like it does here. Here, this is the area that you watch the most, because this is where those industries that are dependent on frost free nights exist.”
Helmick attended Romney’s Peach Festival earlier this month. The Hampshire County Development Authority says about 2,000 people came out over the course of the weekend – celebrating the crop through song, dance, a parade, and foods like peach pie and peach ice cream.
Helmick says West Virginia is 15th in the United States for peach production with about 5,000 tons harvested on average each year. But Helmick says that’s only a quarter of what was produced at the industry’s peak in the state in the 1920s and 30s.
As for how much this year’s late frost impacted the overall productivity of the industry in West Virginia – Helmick says he’s not sure yet. But at Orr’s orchards, 60 percent of their peach crop was lost.
“From what I’ve heard from my uncle and my father, this is a once in 30-year type of a frost,” Orr-Dove said, “and so it’s not very common, and so this is the first time I’ve had to see us deal with this kind of a loss.”
That caused the price of a bushel to increase by 2 to 3 dollars at the Orr Farm Market. Orr-Dove says while there were fewer peaches on the trees, that allowed the peaches that did survive to grow larger.
“They had more room to grow on the trees since there weren’t as many,” she said, “So, you know, my customers are very happy this year, and they haven’t really noticed it; there’s a lot less wholesale going on to the grocery stores though.”
Roughly 80 percent fewer peaches are headed out from Orr’s to retailers this year. But Orr-Dove says that fact hasn’t got her family down – they’re looking forward to next year’s harvest.