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February freeze killed 99 percent of New Mexico's peach crop

ALCALDE, N.M. - Peach cobbler made with locally grown peaches is one of the joys of summer. But this year, that treat may not be possible for New Mexicans.

Fruit grower Ed Costanza looks at the dead flower buds on a peach tree. The February cold spell that engulfed New Mexico damaged an estimated 99 percent of the peach crop, according to NMSU Extension fruit specialist Shengrui Yao. (NMSU Photo by Jane Moorman)

The hard freeze in February damaged an estimated 99 percent of the peach flower buds in north and central New Mexico, according to Shengrui Yao, New Mexico State University Extension fruit specialist.

"When we visited orchards, the trees had flower buds, but when we looked closely they were dead," said Yao, who is stationed at the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde. "Most of the blossom buds will fall off when you touch the branch. And if you slice the bud open you will see a black spot in the center, which is the dead fruit bud."

Peach flower buds can survive temperatures as low as minus 5 degrees in mid-winter, but the record-breaking freeze in early February drove temperatures lower and farther south geographically. Temperatures reached minus 18 degrees in the Middle Rio Grande Valley as far south as Belen.

Grower Ed Costanza said the potential for any peach crop at his orchard south of Belen was totally lost.

"We toured our orchard and the orchard at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center in Los Lunas with Dr. Yao and discovered that most of the peach buds were damaged," said Costanza, who is the past president of the New Mexico Apple Council. "The freeze impact depends on how many hours it stays below minus 10 degrees. The February temperatures lasted long enough for the freeze to reach the center of the bud."

Peach production in New Mexico's overall agricultural economy is small. There are 342 farms with 246 acres of trees, according to the United States Department of Agriculture 2007 Census of Agriculture. Most of these farms produce less than $50,000 in crops, with half producing less than $5,000 each year.

"The loss of the crop may not seem like much to the overall agricultural industry, but to the growers it could be a major part of their income," Costanza said. "Peaches in New Mexico are not a commercial crop. Most growers sell at farmer markets where they can get a premium price for their fruit."

Yao said other stone fruits, those with a hard seed in the middle, were not as badly damaged.

"Some apricot flower buds were lost, but not as bad as the peaches," she said during a presentation on March 16 at the New Mexico Fruit Growers Workshop in Santa Fe. "Apricots are a little hardier and have more buds. So we may have 10 to 20 percent still bloom at Alcalde. While apricots bloom early, we have a long way to go until we are sure there will be a crop."

The cherry crop will not be impacted as seriously as peaches, according to Yao. "They may be slow in developing because of the February freeze, and if no late frosts occur during blooming time, we can still expect a crop for cherries this year."

As for the plums, Yao said, "The Japanese plums got damaged badly but the European plums, which are the blue-purple ones, are safe so far at the Alcalde agricultural science center."

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