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Mark Rice demonstrates a device for thinning peaches that was adapted from an old cherry harvester. He’s still trying to improve on it. Photo by Geraldine Warner

Mark Rice demonstrates a device for thinning peaches that was adapted from an old cherry harvester. He’s still trying to improve on it. Photo by Geraldine Warner

R&L Orchards in Pennsylvania had 200 acres of peaches producing 50,000 bushels annually a decade ago. Then along came plum pox virus.

The virus, previously unknown in North America, showed up in orchards in Pennsylvania in 1999. Many hundreds of acres of orchards in the state were removed in an effort to eradicate it. The virus was reported in eastern Europe almost a century ago and has spread throughout Europe.

Quarantine zone

Since 2000, R&L Orchards, the growing arm of Rice Fruit Company, has had to remove 150 acres of peaches—all that it had at the time of the outbreak. Trees of Prunus species cannot be replanted in the quarantine zone, which includes parts of Adams, Cumberland, and York Counties.

Mark Rice, president of R&L Orchards, said the company received compensation of $1.9 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the State of Pennsylvania after removing its trees, and used that money to buy and start to replant a 330-acre farm outside the quarantine zone. Rice removed about 100 of the 160 acres of orchard on the property and has been replanting. The farm also has about 20 acres of corn and open ground, and a six-acre lake to provide water for trickle irrigation. The rest is woods, creeks, and ponds.

Removal of peach trees because of the plum pox virus outbreak in Pennsylvania not only affected individual growers, but also the whole industry, as it struggled to maintain its markets after a downturn in production. Rice Fruit Company, which had been packing 200,000 bushels of peaches from its own orchards and other growers and packed only about 60,000 bushels last year, was not compensated for the lost production, Rice said. “Plum pox virus has been an immense blow to our company and our local fruit industry.”

Replanting

He is replanting because maintaining a place in the peach business was part of R&L Orchard’s management strategy. He uses peaches to extend the harvest season and attract workers, who will stay to pick apples also.

Since buying the Mount View farm in 2001, Rice has planted 96 acres of peaches on a perpendicular V system, which provides the potential for mechanization. The trees are planted 6 feet apart, with 20 feet between rows. He had been using the V system since 1993 in other orchards that had to be removed because of the virus.

With his mechanic, Dan Schriver, he’s adapted an old limb-shaking cherry harvester for fruit thinning, but they have not yet been able to figure out how to vary the stroke and frequency of the mechanical action.

The trees, which are planted at 363 trees per acre, are trained with two leaders per tree. His philosophy is that a grower should respect the apical dominance of peaches and not limit the height of the trees.

“We get a lot of consistency from the Vs,” Rice told a group of IFTA members who visited the orchard this spring. “But it’s not perfect.”

If the tops are cut off at ten feet, they’ll generate five-foot suckers, he warned. He prunes the bottom of the trees from the ground and uses a hydraulic ladder to reach the tops. He does no summer pruning.

He’s thinking about using platforms, but can’t afford enough $40,000 units for the 60 people it takes to harvest the crop.

Some of his plantings produced 210 bushels per acre in the third leaf and 420 in the fourth leaf. Harvest runs from the last week of July until a little after Labor Day.

In 2005, his 91 acres of bearing peach and nectarine plantings at the orchard produced 26,000 bushels of fruit, which generated a net return to the farm of $500,000. “It’s the only thing we have much of a margin on,” Rice said.