If you have been waiting for local sweet and tart plums at your market or hoping to pick them at a local orchard this summer, you’re out of luck.
Plum season, the fleeting time for purple stone fruit that usually starts sometime between late July and late August, won’t be arriving in Pennsylvania or New Jersey this year due to an early spring frost that decimated the region’s crops.
Local farmers pin the plum problems on a sequence of dramatic weather fluctuations that made for a deadly combination: February’s record-shattering warmth, with temperatures that hit 70 degrees, brought out the plum buds sooner than normal. Then, as snowflakes began swirling over the region in the second week of March, the temperature dropped. The snowfall, which dropped anywhere from two to 11 inches around Pennsylvania and New Jersey, was followed by an arctic cold snap, with temperatures as low as 19 degrees.
“We knew it almost immediately,” said Art Whitehair, events coordinator for Highland Orchards in West Chester, one of many regional farms that lost its entire plum crop. “You look inside at the center of the blossoms, and when they turn black, you know they’re dead.”
The loss of plums hasn’t affected the produce in most supermarkets, because many of them import the fruit from California. Last week, most of the plums for sale at the Iovine Bros. produce stand in Reading Terminal Market bore stickers indicating they were from California, too.
“The customers have noticed,” Whitehair said. “We have some serious plum pickers. They’ve been understanding, for the most part, but we hate to have to break the news.”
However, several farmers said a bumper crop of peaches has helped offset the loss from the plums. This year has turned into one of the best for peaches in the Northeast in recent memory, after a poor harvest in 2016 caused by a late-spring cold snap.
Norm Schultz, farm manager for Linvilla Orchards in Delaware County, said plums are a relatively small piece of the orchard’s produce — about 2 percent of all stone fruit crops. The orchard lost almost all of them, he said, along with the apricots, but the peach crop and a healthy cherry harvest have more than made up for it.
“We’ve had the best cherry crop ever,” he said. “Between the peaches and the cherries, we’re way ahead of what we lost.”
More than 70 percent of Linvilla’s peaches were destroyed last year, Schultz said, an unprecedented loss that cost the business hundreds of thousands of dollars. The extreme weather shifts in recent years have led many farmers he knows to diversify their crops, he said.
“We’re all feeling there’s more fluctuation in weather now,” Schultz said. “When you talk to the man who’s 90 years old, and he’s never lost a peach crop until recently, that means something’s changing.”
Hemant Gohil, a county agent with the Cooperative Extension of Gloucester County in New Jersey, said plums were already among the earliest fruits to bloom each spring, but last winter’s warm temperatures had them ready to bloom by March. Even after the snow, the state’s crops might have survived if the temperature hadn’t plunged so dramatically, he said.
“They never stood a chance,” he said. “The sad part is we are seeing this more often than we used to.”
Mood’s Farm Market in Gloucester County lost most of its plums, but the Italian plum trees survived because they bloom later in the season, said Patti Mood, whose parents own the farm. The Italian plums don’t taste the same as some of the sweeter, more popular varieties, but they’re particularly well-suited for baking, and Mood said they’re expected to ripen sometime this week.
Plum trees take up only a few acres on Mood’s farm, but Mood said they remain one of the most popular products in the late summer.
“A lot of people really like them,” she said. “Once it’s August, people always ask about them. They have a big following for a small crop.”