North Louisiana crop looks 'peachy'

The banter was from harvesters who had headed into the orchard for the first time this season. And the boom was from a sound cannon used to scare away birds. All of this meant some of the peaches were ripe and ready for picking.

"The harvesters are looking for full color peaches mostly." Mitcham said. "The peaches will actually start getting a little soft – which means they are ripe – but really the red color is what we're looking for."

Light spring freezes thinned out some of the peaches, but did not do much damage, experts say. Generally farmers thin the crop just before harvest, so the colder weather this year may actually have helped reduce production costs.

A hail storm in late April also damaged some of the peaches, presenting another challenge for growers.

"We had a hail storm that physically damaged the peaches some. It doesn't affect the flavor of the peach, but it's not as pretty and it does devalue it." Mitcham said, adding that he believes about 20 percent of his crop may have hail cuts on it.

Despite those two factors, Mitcham and experts in the LSU AgCenter say this year's peach crop appears to be a good one.

"The overall peach crop for the state of Louisiana looks really good," says John Pyzner, LSU AgCenter horticulturist. "It's the best I've seen in a long time. I think I'd probably have to rate it anywhere from 95-to-100 percent."

Pyzner said most growers are not experiencing disease or insect pressure.

"Brown rot is the No. 1 disease of peaches, and it is usually more severe if you have really wet conditions." Pyzner said.

Back at Mitcham's farm on that cool May morning, the harvesters picked for only about an hour. But long before the picking starts, Mitcham's crews must maintain the orchard. Three times a year, crews prune the peach trees.

"We cut out the center growth to give the trees an inverted umbrella appearance," Mitcham explained. "This increases the amount of sunlight that reaches the fruit and opens the tree up for air ventilation."

The pruning reduces the risk of disease problems on the peaches and gives them a richer color.

On the day of the visit, the harvesters returned from the orchard with their light load, and Mitcham ran his processing equipment for the first time this year.

The peaches went through a hydro-cooler, which is like a cold water bath, to remove the heat from the fruit.

"Then they are emptied into a dumper truck where they float out of the crates we pick them in to reduce bruising." Mitcham said. "They are defuzzed and washed, so they actually go through three water baths, and they are real clean by the time they come out."

The workers then grade the peaches. The No. 2s, which include the hail-damaged peaches, go to one side and are sold at a lower cost, and the No. 1s, the best peaches, are boxed and ready for retail.

Recently Mitcham has changed his marketing strategies. He used to wholesale his peaches, but retailing is a more lucrative way to go.

"Everybody comes here to pick up the peaches." Mitcham said. "It's a lot less headache. We don't have refrigerated trucks any more, and we get top dollar for our peaches."

Tobie Blanchard is a writer for the LSU AgCenter.

e-mail: [email protected]

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