The many challenges of growing in northern Louisiana

Mitcham Farms aims to grow a delicious peach for retail trade, which requires special attention to variety selection and nutrients.

It’s not easy being a peach grower in Louisiana nowadays. A once-thriving industry has taken some hits in recent decades, but Joe Mitcham has continually found ways to succeed.

Bad weather, bad markets and more have plagued the state’s peach orchards in the last 30 years. However, Mitcham’s farm in Ruston is still the place to go if you want a great peach. He thrives by confronting each new challenge and finding a way to address it. He’s a one-man lesson in problem solving, and as a result, his large, yellow fruit is so much in demand at the retail level that he can’t grow the volume to fill the orders.

Ruston is in the northern half of Louisiana, where most of the state’s peaches are grown. Mitcham has about 100 acres of trees, and he’s the largest grower in the state. His father, J.E. Mitcham, started the orchard in 1947 as a part-time enterprise, and at its peak there were some 300 acres of trees. The climate is the same as that along the I-20 corridor that leads to the famous Georgia peaches, and Lincoln Parish, where the farm lies, can produce a prime-eating, yellow peach.

The primary factor in the peach decline in Louisiana in the past, Mitcham says, were years of freeze starting in the 1970s and continuing through the 1990s. As crops were hit during the bloom period, and production was wiped out completely in some years, a few growers quit farming, and some growers’ acreage declined as they failed to replace failing trees for economic reasons. Mitcham was hit hard, because other than pine forests, peaches were his only source of income. It became difficult to replace trees and invest the other inputs when he didn’t get a crop some years.

In 2000, Mitcham purchased some wind machines. It was a big investment, at $16,000 apiece, but he now has 11 machines that each provide freeze protection for about 10 acres of trees. This has given his orchard new life.

“We have not lost a crop to freeze since then,” Mitcham says. He has learned how to best utilize the machines, and they have protected his blooming trees down to 26 degrees. He finds that he can maintain the air in the orchard at about 5 degrees above the ambient temperature if he turns the wind machines on when the air temperature reaches about 35 to 38 degrees. That usually is about 11 p.m. It costs him approximately $400 per hour to run the machines on propane fuel, but it gives him a crop to harvest.

Peaches and peach products are sold largely in gift packs.

Another challenge for Mitcham Farms is maintaining quality. Because he sells his crop locally, flavor is the focus of his growing season. “If it doesn’t taste good, why grow it and sell it?” he asks. Even more than color, his customers keep coming back year after year for a fine eating peach.

The first factor in getting great flavor is in variety selection. Mitcham grows primarily yellow peaches, though he does have a few white peach and plum trees, and over the years he has experimented with different varieties. In 1990, he planted 85 acres in about 35 varieties to see which would give him the peaches he wanted.

It’s important to find good varieties, because it takes three years or so to be able to judge whether the tree will thrive and give him a large, tasty peach that he will be able to sell in his retail program. Many varieties that do well in other states don’t do well here, and certainly won’t give him the 1-pound, delicious peach he aims for at the height of the season. From his original 35 varieties he still has 28 that suit him.

Some of those varieties are traditional; some are from a Louisiana State University peach-breeding program. Some are early, some midseason, some late. All are selected because they provide peak flavor during his May 20 to August 1 harvest period. His best varieties over that period are Flavor Crest, Harvester, Bounty, Majestic, Red Globe and Ruston Red. He considers the Red Globe to be the best overall for his area.

The other factor in growing for flavor is plant nutrition. Mitcham has found that some of the standard fertilizers, like ammonium sulfate, are not the best for his soils and crop. He prefers calcium nitrate and lime. It’s a more expensive program, but it gives him the premium crop he wants. He applies this granular fertilizer on March 1 and September 1.

PHOTOS BY PEGGY GREB, ARS. UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
 
The Peach Store is Mitcham Farms’ retail center, and with almost 100 percent retail sales of fresh peaches or processed products, the farm earns $100 per bushel for its crop.

Although irrigation might not seem to be much needed in this rainy state (thankfully, the farm is 300 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and major hurricane damage), Mitcham points out that gaps in the summer rains may leave his trees stressed.

He, like his father before him, utilizes drip irrigation. It gives him a means of adding water during those June-July dry spells, when uniform irrigation results in good fruit size. He makes sure he uses the drip even during dormancy so that feeder roots are established in those wet zones.

What this attention to detail has led to is a thriving market for his peaches. He long ago found that he could not compete with major peach-growing regions in the wholesale market, so he sells 100 percent of his crop retail now. It all started when a local banker approached him and his father to make up some gift boxes for bank clients; then a trucking company wanted some, and a pharmaceutical company.

Gift boxes make up about 70 percent of his crop at this point. “We do a very attractive gift package and a nice box with our logo on it,” Mitcham says.

As a result, he now has about 15 large, corporate clients that order gift boxes every year, and over 2,000 small customers who buy one or more boxes as gifts. What is nice is that there is no shipping. Mitcham Farms tried mailing boxes, but it was prohibitively expensive to ship these 12-pound gifts, especially in bulk lots. Now, almost all of his clients come to the farm and pick up the gift boxes.

During the summer months, the Mitcham Farms’ packing shed is busy with visitors who drive hundreds of miles to buy a tasty peach.

The farm has its own packing shed and The Peach Store, and during the harvest season there can be a clamor for gift boxes. Many of their customers are from Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and far-flung regions of Louisiana. One customer from Oklahoma used to fly in annually. It isn’t unusual to have several customers drive 300 miles from Dallas to get their gift boxes.

A proper processing facility is necessary to make sure only premium fruit goes into those boxes. Peaches from the field are hydro-cooled to take the heat out and reduce the potential for bruising, and then they are graded, cleaned, sorted to five sizes and de-fuzzed. His off-grades are also sold at the farm, and they are still desirable for eating or cooking. Large peaches are hand-packed, and small fruit is machine-packed.

The Peach Store has evolved into an excellent retail center, because the farm utilizes a portion of its off-grade or banged–up fruit to make jams, jellies, preserves and peach salsa, their biggest seller. That packaging is done by a food plant about 50 miles away, because the Mitchams don’t want to be in the food processing business. They can sell jars individually or in a Christmas tray in the gift box. They also sell about 30 products from another company that makes peach-related foods, as well as the farm’s own homemade peach ice cream at certain times in the summer.

For years, the town of Ruston has held an annual Squire Creek Louisiana Peach Festival, which has always been supportive of local growers. Mitcham says that as peach acreage has declined locally, the festival has become more of an arts and crafts festival, but he still can get over 100 people waiting in a line outside his store during the festival—so many of them waiting for a gift box that he has to limit them to two boxes apiece.

“My biggest problem is, I don’t have the volume I need,” he says.

The upshot of the popularity of his peaches, Mitcham says, is that he earns an average of $100 per bushel for his crop. That is the reason he focuses on quality during the growing season.

Which brings us to Mitcham Farms’ biggest challenge to date. One of the reasons he can’t maintain crop volume is the soilborne disease armillaria root rot. It’s a persistent problem that causes decline in his trees, and he can’t keep up his acreage. He’s losing trees as young as 3 or 4 years old, which makes it difficult to maintain an economic advantage.

At one time, Mitcham could use methyl bromide to keep the disease in check, but now he doesn’t have access to that. He predicts that armillaria, if he can’t find a way to control it, could put him out of business within three years. Because most of his land has been in peaches, there isn’t a way for him to escape the disease.

John Pyzner says that armillaria is a menace throughout the state and, along with early bloom freeze, has been a factor in the decline of the Louisiana peach industry. Pyzner, a Louisiana State Cooperative Extension pecan and fruit specialist in Shreveport, points out that last year he counted up 411 acres total of commercial peaches in the state. There are some new orchards going in, but most are less than 10 acres in size.

“This year we’ve lost a couple of orchards, and some have reduced in size,” Pyzner says. Armillaria is, in general, a statewide problem, because it occurs in areas cleared of hardwood forest, which is where a lot of new peach orchards go in. He says there is no good control in sight, but that planting new trees in old pasture ground rather than in former forest ground may give better results.

As for marketing, Pyzner says that most peach growers in the state now do what Mitcham does; they retail their crop. Most favor farmers’ markets or on-farm sales, and those small orchards could gain traction and be the seeds of a more dynamic peach industry in the future.

As for Mitcham, he is hoping to hang on for another 10 years in the peach business. If he can find a way to get around the armillaria problem, he just could do it. The locals are probably hoping he will be as crafty with this as he has been with his other challenges, because what would Ruston be without a delicious, Mitcham peach?

For more information, go to www.mitchamfarms.com to see The Peach Store, and visit www.louisianapeachfestival.com to see what goes on at the annual festival.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.