Why Peach Queen 2015 will also be Peach Queen 2016 at Glouco fair

Santo John Maccherone, chairman of New Jersey Peach Promotion Council, said: “There are guys who got hurt really bad, and have next to nothing. Others may have 90 percent of what they normally have.”

Peach ice cream - fresh-dipped and fabulous - will be featured at the 2016 Gloucester County 4-H Fair this year. But there won't be a Peach Bake-Off, or a Little Miss Peach competition. And a 2016 Peach Queen will not be crowned, either.

The all-volunteer New Jersey Peach Festival, a popular component of the fair for decades, has called it quits in the wake of a spring freeze that appears to have destroyed 25 percent of the fruit.

Growers and promoters of one of South Jersey's most beloved crops insist that a solid supply of luscious peaches is ripening as we speak. And the fair, set for July 28 through 31 at the 4-H fairgrounds on Bridgeton Pike in Mullica Hill, will offer a schedule that includes equine events, antique tractor parades, and livestock auctions, as well as food, music, and pony rides galore.

"The festival has been in decline for a long time, but they were a separate vendor," says Linda Strieter, coordinator of Gloucester County's 4-H program. "The fair [itself] will be better than ever."

The Garden State's $30 million annual crop ranks fourth in size nationally, behind only California, South Carolina, and Georgia, and with 2,000 acres of peaches, Gloucester County is the industry's unofficial epicenter in New Jersey.

Nevertheless, in recent years the statewide number of growers has fallen from 80 to 75. And until recently, the amount of acreage devoted to the fragile, labor-intensive crop also was dropping in New Jersey, where peaches have been cultivated since the early 1600s.

This spring's weather hit local growers hard. An unusually warm spell in late March - which encouraged early varieties of peaches to blossom - was followed by a deep freeze the night of April 4 and into the morning of April 5.

"The temperatures ranged from 17 to 25 degrees," notes Hemant Gohil, agricultural agent at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Gloucester County.

Says third-generation grower Santo John Maccherone, chairman of the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council: "There are guys who got hurt really bad, and have next to nothing. Others may have 90 percent of what they normally have.

"The festival works better when all the farmers have stuff," Maccherone says from his farm in Mannington Township, Salem County. "The people who used to run it, which is not easy to do, are volunteers. They decided they couldn't do it anymore, and the peach promotion council found out too late."

A key reason for the decision was "this year's very bad crop," says longtime Washington Township farmer Steve Smith, who has served as president and vice president of the nonprofit festival association for years, even after getting out of the peach-growing business.

Because of the freeze, "it would have been very hard to get produce for the festival," Smith says, adding that a dwindling number of mom-and-pop peach growers, fading interest in some of the fruit-judging contests, and increasing commitments by members of his own family also factored into the decision.

"We're really sad to stop," says his daughter, Jenna Zeiders, a mother of three who lives in Washington Township, "but we would like to thank all of our supporters who came out year after year."

Peach enthusiasts may be heartened to learn that while the festival and its Bake-Off have been canceled, the peach promotion council - jerseypeaches.com - is again holding its amateur "Perfect Peach Pie" baking contest at farmers markets statewide through the summer.

Meanwhile, 2015 Peach Queen Tori Hepler has graciously agreed to extend her reign and appear at a number of "peach parties" and other promotional events across the state.

"I know just how difficult agriculture is," Hepler, who's 19 and lives on her family's vegetable farm in Monroeville, Salem County, tells me, adding that the "hard work and determination" of farmers "is exactly what makes me happy to be the New Jersey Peach Queen for another year."

Farmers markets and supermarkets "want the Peach Queen," council spokeswoman Pegi Adam says. "People get their picture taken with her. They love the Peach Queen!"

There's other good news as well: Bruce A. Eklund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistician for New Jersey, cites figures released Wednesday showing the statewide total of peach-bearing acres rose from 4,500 in 2013 to 4,700 last year.

And retired Gloucester County agricultural agent Jerry Frecon - "I've been working with peaches for 50 years" - points out that the Jersey peach isn't about to disappear.

"We have a long history, and our growers are not fly-by-night new people. They know how to grow nice peaches," he says. "We have good sandy loam, a temperate climate, and usually enough rainfall and enough sunny days so we can ripen fruit nicely and size it well.

"We can pick peaches close to maturity and get them into the market in a hurry. The fresher, the better."

Now that's sweet.

kriordan@phillynews.com

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