Hot weather, buying local makes 2022 a great year for Niagara peach growers: Andrew Coppolino

The plump baseball-sized globes come with enchanting names like Red Haven, Morningstar, Springcrest and Garnet Beauty. Between now and September is the height of peach season in Ontario — and 2022 is turning out to be a banner year for Niagara peach farmers, who are benefiting from good weather for the popular summer fruit, as well as a strong “support local” movement .

Of all the peaches grown in Canada, 81 per cent are from Niagara, with 18 per cent coming from the Okanagan. Less than one per cent are grown in Nova Scotia.

Phil Tregunno, chair of the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers, says the weather has been perfect for the best peaches and nectarines: very hot and not too much humidity.

“Peaches like the weather that people often don’t like: lots of heat causes lots of cell division, so peaches grow large but are sweet and juicy,” he said.

Despite drought-like conditions elsewhere, the geography of the Niagara growing region, between lakes Erie and Ontario, has meant sufficient rainfall, according to Tregunno, who also works 160 hectares of peaches and nectarines along the Niagara River.

Peach season in Ontario is in full swing; 81 per cent of the country’s peaches are grown in Niagara. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

He calculates that Niagara peach growers harvest roughly six to seven million three-liter baskets of peaches during the season. That’s worth between $80 to $85 million. The vast majority of Canadian fresh peaches are consumed in Canada, with exports accounting for only $0.46 million.

While there was a time 15 years ago when Ontario peach production felt the threat of foreign processors, the eat local movement, embraced both by individual consumers and corporate retailers, has stabilized and solidified Niagara’s peach production.

“As far as growth is concerned, we’ve really had a big push on local for the last number of years — ever since it became an environmental issue, and there’s been great support from retailers advertising local too,” Tregunno said.

A Niagara peach farmer who visited the St. Jacobs Market with her family farm starting when she was ten years old, Irene Romagnoli is co-owner of Romagnoli Farms with her own family — which has been selling tender fruit such as peaches at the market since the 1970s.

The peach varieties from the Romagnoli’s 32-hectare Niagara farm include freestone, white and “donut” peaches as well as nectarines, the peach’s close cousin, and other tender fruits.

Romagnoli Farms have had a tender fruit stand at St. Jacob’s Market since the 1970s. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Romagnoli agrees that the weather has been peach perfect, and she anticipates a good, long season.

“We usually have peaches right until the fall,” she says. “We pick our last ones mid-September.”

The current excellent growing conditions aside, peach production can suffer from similar stresses as found across the agricultural industry, including a decline in the number of farmers, and competition over arable land, according to Tregunno.

“The areas we grow in are very small. Where you can grow fruit is also a very nice place to live because it’s a milder climate,” he says adding that it’s called “tender fruit” for a reason.

“With the changing climate, we see more extremes [in the weather]. That’s a challenge too, and we have to use more irrigation and wind machines to keep frost away.”

‘Donut’ peaches have a unique shape and are remarkably flavorful, juicy and sweet with a hint of almond. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

When selecting peaches from a vendor, Romagnoli says some aren’t as red as others because of where they grow on the tree and their exposure to the sun, but all colors can be juicy and ripe. Look for a firm peach that hasn’t been washed and waxed.

“You need to see a little bit of fuzz on them,” said Romagnoli.

Educated consumers can play a continuing role in strengthening the local-food movement and its supply lines: so, gather ye peaches while ye may during their relatively short season. Make your peach purchases thoughtfully, and talk to your farmer, suggests Romagnoli.

“Ask a question. Do you like them firm and sweet, or soft and juicy? We’ll guide you to the right peach because there’s many different varieties.”

Here’s how a selection of area cooks are serving peaches:

Mike Naismith, Rich Uncle Tavern, Kitchener
Pickled peaches in the restaurant’s summer stone fruit salad and grilled peaches for desserts.

Nadia Dragusanu, Cafe du Monde, Cambridge
Peach-blueberry crumble and a Mozzarella-peach pizza with pesto.

Sweet and Savory Pie Co., Waterloo
Peach, peach crumble and peach custard pies, both individual and family sizes, as well as peach-crumble tart.

Wellington Brewery, Guelph
Ring Toss Masala-Peach sour beer

Counterpoint Brewing Company, Kitchener
Sweet-sour theme inspired by staffer’s love of Fuzzy Peach candy; slightly tart, with plenty of real peaches and a little malty sweetness. Look for it in mid-September.

Sydney Keedwell, Taco Farm Co., Waterloo
Keedwell is planning to use the peachy-orangeness of peaches for Orange Shirt Day, Sept. 30.

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