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Peaches, apples, grapes will be sweeter this year, thanks to drought

APPLETON — Peaches, apples and grapes grown in Western New York may be sweeter this year, according to some farmers, because of the severe drought that gripped the region.

A spring frost killed the buds on some fruit trees and affected some grapes, and the dearth of rain caused some stress for farmers and their fall crops.

[Gallery: Peach harvest at Bittner-Singer Orchards]

Still, despite the weather, there are local peaches and apples to be found this fall. Apricots, maybe not so much, but grapes may be ahead of schedule.

“Our peaches are doing pretty well,” said Jim Bittner, president and general manager of Bittner-Singer Orchards in Appleton, in Niagara County.

Bittner said there are about two more weeks of peach season. While Buffalonians may be dragging from the hottest August ever this year, it was good for peaches.

“Peaches love heat. This hot weather we had in August – peaches love that,” Bittner said. “They take that sunlight and turn it into sugar.”

Norma Fayias, a field hand, picks peaches from peach trees in the orchard at Bittner-Singer Farms in Appleton, N.Y. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Norma Fayias, a field hand, picks peaches from peach trees in the orchard at Bittner-Singer Orchards in Appleton, N.Y. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The federal government has named Erie and Niagara counties disaster areas because of the drought. A disaster designation makes farm operators in those counties eligible to be considered for certain assistance, including emergency loans, provided eligibility requirements are met.

Not every peach farmer near Buffalo had good luck.

Kappus Farms, in Burt, put the word out on its website and answering machine that its peach season is over.

“Unfortunately, we had a short season due to spring weather conditions that resulted in a small crop,” the farm said. “Hope to see you next year.”

It was the frost that hurt the stone fruit, like peaches and apricots.

“We had absolutely no rain in July, we also had a very late frost,” said Xanda Murphy of Murphy Orchards in Burt. “It affected peaches and killed most of the apricots in the area.”

Apples will be sweeter this season due to the drought in Western New York. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Apples will be sweeter this season due to the drought in Western New York. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Apple trees have pulled through without extra irrigation, for the most part, although Bittner said he did irrigate his peach and apple orchards this year.

“The apples are going to be smaller, but hopefully sweeter,” said Alfred Wodehouse of Stonehill Orchards, a “you pick” business in North Collins.

He also thinks the picking season will be shorter this year.

Murphy said the root system is crucial to the survival of trees, with larger apple trees able to withstand the drought better than dwarf trees.

“The size might be lacking a little bit,” she said of her crop, but she added, “We may have some of the fattest, happiest apples the world has seen.”

Grapes are expected to be about 20 percent smaller this year, because of the drought, according to Luke Haggerty, viticulture extension specialist for the Cooperative Extension’s Lake Erie Regional Grape Program. But that’s good news for the quality of the grape.

“Usually smaller berries mean higher quality. There will be higher sugars this year,” he said.

That means grapes grown for juice may be harvested earlier, and the higher quality is more valuable. The rain in the last week also helped bring up the vine health, he said.

“They were showing some drought stress,” Haggerty said.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com

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