(Town Crier photo/Nan Snider)
The beautiful peach blooms in March may well be all the good news orchard owner Leon Swihart of Leachville will have for the season, as he faces the loss of his crop and damage to his trees.
The three days of below 30-degree temperature earlier this month killed developing peaches all across Northeast Arkansas, and points beyond. Very little remains of the once promising 2007 crop.
Swihart Orchards has been in business for three generations and Leon Swihart is no stranger to cold snaps. But as always, the freeze catches him off-guard. He is driven to visit the orchards many times a day and whip out his sharp pocket knife to cut through a small peach or cherry hoping to find a mint green center that tells him this tree might have been spared from the killing freeze. So far the news is not good, as he estimates 95 percent of his peach crop is lost, and over 50 percent of his pecans.
"The trees were past the blooming season and already had young fruit on them when the freeze hit," Swihart said. "When I cut into a peach the seed is dark and dead inside. It is a sad sight to see. I know all to well what that means...no peaches this year.
"I had been pruning and fertilizing, never expecting the freeze. It got down to 24 degrees one night, then two nights at 26. The lowest dip usually occurs between 4 a.m. and dawn. Just being below 29 degrees can cost peach loss at this stage. There may not be any peaches left in Northeast Arkansas this year."
Swihart grows peaches, plums, apples, cherries, nectarines and pecans in his over 65 acres of orchards, situated two miles apart on the east and west sides of Leachville. Like his father Johnny Swihart and his grandfather Merrill Swihart before him, he is skilled as a nurseryman. He knows what temperatures his trees can tolerate, how long they can endure it, what lack of wind during the drop can do to intensify the damage, and he knows all his training and experience as a grower can do nothing to prevent it.
"Every now and then I'll cut into a peach bud and find life, and that is exciting," Swihart said. "Then I'll go for a long while and not find another. My plum trees bloomed on March 20, and the peaches on March 25. I may get three or four bushels of plums, very few cherries, and very few, if any, peaches. The pecans are looking about 50/50. As bad as it is, the fruit stage is stronger than the blooms would have been.
"The peaches are always in bloom on my birthday, March 25. I think I am a bad news birthday boy this year."
Swihart had 25 acres of peaches this year and has in years past had 100 acres of trees. He has 40 acres beside his home on Swihart Lane with alternating rows of pecans and peaches.
"I have had the peaches sustain a freeze and grow, to only fall off the trees when they reached golf-ball size," Swihart said. "This year I am concerned for the life of many of my trees themselves. If I lose any trees this year I don't plan to plant back, as I am going to be the last generation grower for Swiheart Orchards, and I would never live to see them bear fruit.
"The pecan trees should be green with lots of new growth. They should have tiny pecans on the tips of the limbs beginning to show up, but they don't. Some of the early bearing Indian variety of pecan trees look dead, as they are less hardy. The older stand-bys like the Mayhan and Stewart varieties have green leaves. It looks strange seeing a row of green leaf trees right beside a row of those with dead leaves. Trees that have been big producers in the past few years are the most damaged this year.
"The Cape Fear, Owens, Pawnee trees bloomed three weeks early this year. Those that did not produce as well in the past few years seem to be doing better.
"I have some tress that are broom-handle dead - meaning they are dead through and through. In questioning why some heavy producers died 100 percent and the lazy producers lived, my father would say, 'They just out did themselves, and died.'"
Swihart is quick to point out pecans are alternate bearing, some not bearing fruit for as much as three years in a row.
"They can start out having 100 percent blooms and before harvest may end up not having enough pecans to make a pie," Swihart said. "You just never know.
"There is a lot of stress to maintaining orchards, as well as farming, and it is not for everyone. You don't pay yourself or any of your employees properly in this business. I have been drawn to agriculture by working with my father and grandfather. They didn't worry about the crops, but I do. I call myself a peckerwood farmer, growing both trees and farm crops. I have never encouraged my daughters and their families to go into this profession. I have jokingly said I would sell my land and burn the money before I would see them go into farming, and they haven't."
Swihart and his wife Holly, a retired school teacher, have two daughters. Camille Braswell is a doctor in Little Rock, and Whitney Benson is a lab technician and teacher in Paragould. They have four grandchildren.
"My grandchildren are fascinated by the orchards and love to play and ride the four wheeler around in them," Swihart said. "I have had a lot of good memories here and loved having a family business that has spanned three generations. I auctioned off a bushel of peaches at the Buffalo Island Ambulance Service auction this year, and now I wonder if I am going to be able to find a bushel of fruit to give them. I may have to give them their money back. One thing for sure you can never tell what the outcome of this year's crop will be. Nature will surprise you every time."