(June 28) BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — Peach growers in southwestern Michigan thought Mother Nature did a complete job of thinning the fruit for the summer harvest when a spring freeze hit, but as the season approached, it became evident that growers will have to finish the job on some varieties.

“We’re probably going to end up with 80%-plus of a normal peach crop, which is more than we anticipated,” said Barry Winkel, general manager of Greg Orchards and Produce Inc., Benton Harbor.

“We’ll actually have to thin several varieties,” Winkel said.

Norm Klein, sales manager for Jack Brown Produce Inc., Sparta, said total tonnage will be down, but by how much still remains to be seen.

“We feel we’ll still have a decent peach crop along the lake. The farther inland you go, the worse it is,” Klein said.

Greg Orchards is the largest fresh peach packer in the state, packing 150,000 bushels last year.

ACREAGE CUT

According to the Michigan Agricultural Statistics Service, peach production fell from 47.5 million pounds in 2000 to 42 million pounds in 2001. In that same period, acreage fell from 4,800 to 4,500 acres.

“We’ll convert to peaches the third week of July, usually, but right now, I’d say we’re going to be a week late,” Winkel said. “If it got to be 80 degrees for a long time, we’d catch up.”

Georgia peaches in early June were mostly $14.25 for half- bushel cartons 2½ inches and larger. At the start of last year’s Michigan harvest in late July, f.o.b.s were $12-13 for 2½-inch-and-up redhavens in 25-pound cartons. Early sales typically are limited to local markets.

Winkel said peaches generally fare better than apples, cherries and plums when it comes to extremely cold temperatures. Processing grapes, apples and plums suffered in the spring freeze.

“Peaches have been kind of a bright spot in this area,” Winkel said.

“Apples have been more or less a stable nonprofit item for the past three years, but the growers have turned a profit on peaches. It’s still to the point where adversity in one area can make the price fluctuate quite a bit.”

PRICE SUPPRESSION

That means California’s anticipated bumper crop could keep Michigan peach prices low.

“But even though they have a full crop, from where we’re sitting, people like local peaches, and most of them can be sold right here in Michigan and the surrounding states.”

Mike Rothwell, president of BelleHarvest Sales Inc., Belding, said the Michigan peach industry has rebounded from a 1994 freeze that decimated the crop, ranked sixth in the nation at the time.