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Bennett Orchards loses most of peach crop

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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Record low temperatures destroy Sussex fruit

One of the most popular fruits at local farmers markets and produce stands may not be available this summer.

Recordlow temperatures April 5-6 destroyed nearly the entire peach crop on the Bennett Orchards farm near Frankford.

"About 5 percent of the crop may have survived, but it's too early to tell," said farm owner Hail Bennett. "It's the worst freeze damage I've ever seen. It's a heartbreaking loss for us and our loyal customers."

A perfect storm of unusual weather hit the farm along Route 20. Bennett said warm temperatures in March caused peach trees to blossom nearly three weeks too early. Then this week the temperature dipped to a low of 23 degrees and never increased for six straight hours. "Anything below 28 degrees will kill the peaches," he said. "I was up at 3 a.m. sitting on the tailgate of my truck watching them die; it was devastating."

It's been more than 25 years since the family lost peaches to freezing weather.

He said he grows 18 different varieties of peaches on 25 acres and some are hardier than others. But if a predicted freeze hits this weekend, it may wipe out what is left. In addition, those that do survive may fall off the trees prematurely or be malformed. "Only time will tell," he said. "A lot goes into harvesting a peach crop, and sometimes it's better to walk away."

He said they may be able to salvage a few peaches for some farmers markets but he doubts wholesale or pick-your-own peaches will be available.

In a good year, the Bennetts pick as many as 10,000 half bushels or about 500,000 peaches.

They have become mainstays each summer at nine area farmers markets, including markets in Lewes and Rehoboth Beach.

Bennett said the good news is the farm's eight acres of blueberries planted in 2011 have not blossomed and survived the freeze.

Bennett said the peach blossoms are bright pink now, but that will change quickly. "The small green peaches inside the blossoms have already turned brown and mushy," he said. "In about two to three days, the blossoms will start to fall to the ground."

In the past, Bennett said, they have hired a helicopter to hover over the peach trees during periods of cold weather to mix the air up. "But the forecast this time was that it was going to be so cold for so long, the end result would be the same," he said.

Bennett said he does have crop insurance, but the payout is minimal.

"We'll survive; we are not going anywhere," Bennett said. "It's the chance you take as a farmer. We've had a lot of good years in the past, and you know that something like this will happen sooner or later. We are at the mercy of Mother Nature."

Bennett's father, Jim, planted the farm's first peaches in 1983 and had the first harvest in 1987. Unfortunately, freezing temperatures wiped out the entire crop in back-to-back years in 1989 and 1990. "Those were tough years for my parents with two young children," he said.

The six-generation farm has been in operation since 1867 with the family's roots in the area dating back to the mid-1700s.

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Original Publication Date: April 8, 2016

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