Large hail damages fresh peaches at a Nelson Co. Orchard

Paul Saunders of Saunders Brothers inspects peaches for hail marks after the June 1 hail storm that hit the local Nelson County orchard. (Nelson Co. Tourism Office / June 8, 2012)

Peaches were hanging off the trees in central Va last Friday, June 1, when the weather forecasters were calling for severe weather and the possibility of tornadoes.

That afternoon, golf ball size hail hit the central Va peach orchards at Saunders Brothers, Inc. According to Paul Saunders, the patriarch of the family business, “We had golf ball sized hail for about 5-10 minutes around 2:30pm and it hit most of our peach and apple orchards. I would guess that about 40% of the peaches show some hail pecks.”

Saunders says that he feels very lucky that the damage was not as severe as he had anticipated. He says that most of the hail hit peaches in the top of the trees and some of the lower hanging peaches were not hit. Saunders explains, “When the hail hits the peach it does nothing more than make a superficial blemish on the outer skin. It scabs over much like a scab after you cut your skin. After that “scab” is formed, the peach will continue normal growth and sizing and the taste will be normal. It will continue to add sugar until it is fully ripe and ready to be harvested. “According to Mr Saunders, the peach flavor will not be affected and most people will not notice the small blemishes on the skin of the peaches.

Saunders explains that they have been harvesting peaches since May 24 due to a very warm March in Central Virginia. Peaches bloomed earlier than usual this spring. When peaches bloom earlier, they normally will grow and develop their fruit earlier also.  As a result, peaches in this area will be harvested earlier this season than ever before.

According to Bennett Saunders of Saunders Brothers in Piney River, “We had an unusually warm March and our peach varieties bloomed about 2 weeks ahead of normal. When the peaches started blooming so early, we were very concerned that they could get killed by a late frost. However, we did not have any late season frosts in central Virginia and we have a very good fruit crop as of right now.” Once the temperature goes below 28 degrees Fahrenheit, Saunders says that blooms may be killed. It also depends on how long the temperature stays below 28 degrees and how low the temperature actually goes.

However, the temperatures in the Saunders orchards never went below 30 degrees.  “We were very fortunate and feel very lucky.”

“We have been harvesting peaches now for 2 weeks,” Saunders says. He admits that he has never harvested peaches this early in his 25 years of growing peaches on this Nelson County farm. The Saunders family has been harvesting fruit here since the mid – 1930’s.  The family grows over 30 different varieties of white- and yellow-flesh peaches that ripen from late May to the end of September.  They also grow donut peaches, nectarines, Asian pears, and apples.

Bennett’s father, Paul Saunders, commented, “I have seen a lot of peach crops, and was very concerned when we had that very early bloom that we would suffer some killed blooms. In fact, I remember commenting to one of my sons in March that we would be very lucky to have a full fruit crop this year. However, we were blessed with no late season frosts and I am very excited to see our crop this early. I have never in my 78 years seen peaches harvested this early in Central Virginia. I just love peach season!” The patriarch of the family business laughs and admits, “I have seen in farming that you do not have to go to Las Vegas to gamble, just get in the peach business!”