The Queen

by Gary Mount

Here at Terhune Orchards, when we talk about the Queen, many would think we refer to wife Pam. That’s not far wrong, but there is another Queen–The Queen of Fruits, The Peach. I have a love-hate relationship with peaches. I love the way they taste, the aroma, the texture, their brief, intense season. But I hate with a passion how hard they are to grow and how short a life a peach tree has. It has taken me a while to learn how to grow and care for peach trees. They are very susceptible to disease, to insects, root diseases, and low temperature injury in the dead of winter. I have learned to mound up each row to keep the roots from getting saturated with water and we actually paint the tree trunks white to keep them from warming and starting to flow sap during bright, sunny winter days. If that happens, the trunks can split when the temperature drops at night. I did not have to work at making the winters warmer–that seems to be happening without my help, but the other problems have take a while to address.

But what is so special about peaches? After all, I grew up on an apple farm–all apples–300 acres of them. My father and uncle did plant about 20 acres of peaches one time, but soon decided that peaches were not for them. My uncle had a summer house in the Poconos and our family had a house at the shore. Apples are a crop that they could leave on the weekends in the summers. My father and uncle liked that. Not so with peaches. Peach harvest is right in the middle of the summer. Peaches need to picked, sorted, packed and marketed every day! The peaches were soon pushed out. More apples were planted and life went back to normal.

When Pam and I bought Terhune Orchards in 1975, the farm came with apples, pears—-and peaches. It was a good thing to have them because cash flow was terribly tight in the summer, even though having peaches meant we had to stay right on it all summer. Keep in mind that in those days, three crops were all there was for us–not anything like the 36 crops we grow now.

We had many types of peaches. Many were historic, even in 1975. Blake, Sunhigh, Yellow Hale, White Hale, Raritan Rose, Summercrest, Iron Mountain to name a few. Some were greenish, some were ugly, but they all tasted great! Summercrest was one. Oblong, with a greenish cast, ugly, lumpy, but what a taste. Customers who knew them never told anyone else. They were afraid the Summercrest would be gone too fast. I especially remember Iron Mountain because it came ready to pick about a month after all the other peaches were gone. We only had a few trees which seemed to increase their desirability in our customers’ eyes. It is vivid in my mind what occurred that first fall. Pam was sitting on the floor of the farm store, three year old daughter Reuwai was sleeping in a playpen nearby, and Pam was eight months pregnant with our second child while she sat there sorting those Iron Mountains. Quite a few customers were leaning over her, demanding a basket, of which there were not that many. Invariability, the first customer wanted at least three baskets, much to the dismay of the others and of dear Pam.

The historic nature of the peaches also showed in the age and health of the trees. They were tall, old, weak and poor producers. They also died fast.Many were so tall that not a single peach could be picked without a stepladder. Because of the tree height and having to carry the ladders our harvest crew was made up of pickers and luggers. When a picker’s basket was full he would shout, “Lugger” to have someone come and give him a new basket while taking the full one to the truck. The truck was a 1939 Chevrolet 1.5 ton stake body–the very one that we sell firewood from next to the farm store each winter.

Since that time we have planted and replanted our peach trees. I have gotten them to live longer–18 to 20 years instead of around 12. We manage to keep them low enough so that ladders are not needed. And we grow newer varieties and newer fruits, such as nectarines (peaches without the fuzz on the skin), and donut peaches. The new varieties all look better–we have to be diligent in choosing ones that also taste good.

We have made a lot of progress in growing. In face we are almost to the point of not having to use any insecticides in the peach orchard. We still need fungicides because peaches are very susceptible to decay, but insecticides are almost out.

The story of how that has come about is just so great! Most insects that attack peaches spend part of their life cycle as a moth. The males and females mate, the female lays eggs from which hatch a caterpillar, which is the infamous worm in the peach. I ask my school tour groups what is worse than a worm in your peach? They usually get it–half a worm! Corny, I know.

Conventional culture of peaches uses a pesticide to kill the newly hatched worm before it can go into the peach. But we are using a technique that avoids pesticide use to control the worm. We take advantage of the knowledge that male moths find the female moth by following her scent or “pheromone” through the air. We take a synthetic replica of the scent which is impregnated in a twist tie (like that used on bread wrappers) and hang it throughout the peach orchard. When the males come, there is so much scent, they are totally confused. They cannot find the females. There is no mating, no egg laying and no worms. Amazing. I must admit that I never imagined such a clever technique.

We are about ready to pick peaches. It’s that time of year. As we do, we will be picking younger trees in my latest peach planting. The peaches will not be ugly, nor green. The old varieties are gone. Hopefully, I have found the ones that taste the best.