At Circle M Farms in Salem, grower Santo Maccherone has trouble containing his enthusiasm these days. His peach trees - covering more than 100 acres - are absolutely laden with fruit.

"The peaches are happy, I'm happy, and the people eating them are happy," he said with a laugh.

A "consistently cold winter," cool bloom season, and plentiful rain have created the right conditions for a strong crop, said Maccherone, president of the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council, a nonprofit organization of growers, shippers, wholesalers, and associated industries.

He grows white and yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines.

"The quality of the peaches is good," said Maccherone who has farmed his whole life, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. "We've got good size, color, and taste."

Just how bountiful the rest of the season is depends on Mother Nature, the growers say. The threat of hail, which can damage peaches, and the possibility of a rainy spate at this stage of the crop, which can lead to disease, always hangs over them. It sometimes affects farmers in one area while missing others 10 or 20 miles away.

Last year, New Jersey harvested 22,000 tons of peaches from 4,600 acres, up 21 percent from the previous year when 4,500 acres was in production, said the Peach Promotion Council and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 2014 crop was valued at $27.3 million.

"When you get a lot of rain like we've had, you have bigger, heavier fruit," said Ed Wengryn, research associate for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, a nonprofit trade association representing thousands of New Jersey farmers and others in the agriculture industry. "They may be a little less sweet when the water content is higher but they'll also be juicier."

In Pennsylvania, 15,800 tons of peaches were harvested from 4,000 acres in 2014 and were valued at $16.9 million, according to the USDA.

"This year, we'll have an average harvest," said Mark O'Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, which represents more than 61,400 farm and rural families.

While some peach orchards were negatively affected by fluctuating winter temperatures, heavy rains or other severe weather, "overall, [the growers] have been very happy," he said.

Among peach-producing states, California easily ranks number one, followed by South Carolina, Georgia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, agriculture officials said.

At Holtzhauser Farms in Mullica Hill, N.J., grower Tom Holtzhauser began picking Early Star and Desiree peach varieties nearly two weeks ago.

"This looks like a very good season for yellow fruit [peaches]," said the grower, who also serves as a director of the Peach Promotion Council. "A lot of my white fruit peach trees lost buds because of the cold winter but they represent only 2 percent" of the harvest.

"We're getting busy doing retail business and everybody is anxious to get started," he said. "People come in in flocks to our packing house and fill up baskets with fresh peaches."

About 50 percent of Holtzhauser's peaches are sold retail locally and the rest are transported to the wholesale market in New York City. One his most popular varieties is the Saturn, a flat doughnut-like peach so tender that the pit can be pushed out with a finger.

"They're the best peaches of the entire summer," said Holtzhauser, whose family has been growing the fruit since 1897. " . . . I'll be doing this until they drag me out of here."

While the 2015 harvest is shaping up well - average or better than average - for most area peach growers, the amount of acreage devoted to the fruit has been dropping over the last few decades.

In 1982, New Jersey had 14,600 acres of the peaches, said Jerry Frecon, a consultant for the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council and professor emeritus of Rutgers University who specialized in agricultural extension work. Today, the state has the 4,600 acres of peaches plus about 600 acres of nectarines.

"Why?" he asked. "Because peaches have been less profitable" and the growers "can't make a living."

Raising and harvesting the fruit is labor intensive and competitive when the local farmers have to share the supermarket shelves equally with growers from South Carolina and Georgia, Frecon said.

"The land can be more valuable to grow something else - or to sell to developers," he said. "If it was a profitable crop, [the farmers] would still be growing peaches.

"There are also other reasons" for selling land, Frecon said. "Sometimes, their children don't want to go into the business or they don't have heirs and have to sell."

For now, though, this time of the year through September is the harvest - when growers are cashing in on numerous varieties of peaches and hoping the weather cooperates.

"Mother Nature has been good to our peach growers so far," said Bob Von Rohr, marketing director of Sunny Valley International in Glassboro, a produce sales and marketing company representing growers.

Yellow-flesh peaches are now in full production and "white peaches start the last week in July or first week in August and run through to mid-September," said Von Rohr. "Yellow nectarines start in the beginning of August."

Just don't mention that dreaded four-letter word: hail.

"Right now, that's the biggest concern for peaches - hail or eight days straight of rain," said O'Neill of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

"My kids were not allowed to say that word," said Maccherone.

Peach Festival

The 33d annual New Jersey Peach Festival will be held July 23 through July 26 at the 4-H Fair at 275 Bridgeton Pike in Mullica Hill. For more informations, go to www.gc4HFair.comEndText

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