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Recent Weather Outburst the Pits for Summer's Peach Crop : On the brink of peak season, a freak hailstorm battered the delicate fruit last week. That means meager supply and higher prices.


The California farmer can't seem to get a break from an unrelenting Mother Nature.

"It's been one thing after another," lamented Gary Van Sickle, field director for the California Tree Fruit Agreement, an industry trade group.

Time and again, the pounding rains and wicked winds have hit at the absolute worst time--harvest time.

Broccoli. Celery. Strawberries. Lettuce. Cherries. These products and more have suffered dearly this year.

And now the latest victim: peaches.

On the cusp of entering a peak peach period, the Central Valley--home to 85% of the state's production--was nailed with a violent hailstorm last week.

"There was a lot of damage," Van Sickle said, speaking from his office in Reedley. "We're looking at a crop that is about two-thirds normal." The freak hailstorm also resulted in losses to plum and nectarine production, he said.

Peach production begins to kick into high gear about this time each season, which is perfect timing for the July 4 holiday. In turn, peach lovers would normally expect rock-bottom prices as the chain markets place the popular fruit on special.

But don't expect to procure your peaches for mere pennies this year.

Retail prices are expected to be above normal because of shortened supplies, Van Sickle said. "We're still optimistic that we will have an adequate crop and will be able to supply fruit at a reasonable price," he said.

The California peach season will continue into October--weather permitting--Van Sickle said, with a second peak period due to hit in mid-August.

Area farmers' markets are also experiencing a pinch in supplies, said Karen Wetzel, manager of the Ventura County Certified Farmers' Markets.

"Normally, we would have lots of peaches by this time, but we are just barely starting to see them come in," she said.

Crop damage aside, farmers' market-bound peaches can often be more flavorful than their grocery store counterparts.

To withstand the rigors of mass production, peaches are harvested in a still-firm, unripe state, thus compromising flavor.

Small growers who attend farmers' markets will often pick just enough fruit for that day's sales, Wetzel said.

"They will often be picked the day before--[having] been left to ripen on the tree," she said. "It can make a big difference in the taste."

When purchased at a grocery store, "Peaches will need two to three days of ripening to bring [them] up to optimal level," Van Sickle said. "But they are very easy to ripen."

Simply place your purchase in a brown paper bag and fold it shut.

Check the peaches daily, and once they yield to gentle pressure--and are accompanied by a nice aroma--they're ready, Van Sickle said. And if you don't want to eat a peach right away after it's ripe, you can put it in the fridge and hold it for a couple days, he said.


* FYI: Though Ventura County has no commercial peach production, there are a couple of places that sell home-grown fruit.

* Dorothy Holmes' roadside stand, 16350 Maricopa Highway, above Ojai. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Call 646-1231.

* Tierra Rejada Ranch, 3370 Moorpark Road, Moorpark. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 529-4132.

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