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These peaches aren't likely to escape Rogue Valley

A late spring mixed with mild temperatures has produced a solid Rogue Valley peach crop. But solid shouldn't be confused with bountiful, and area peach growers say that as has been the case for many years, the vast majority of their fruit will be purchased and eaten locally.

Old Stage Farm, north of Jacksonville, was among the first out of the chute as Chris and Gary Pellett began picking Red Havens 10 days ago. The Pelletts' 31/2-acre peach and nectarine orchard ripened earlier than other parts of the valley, and a second freestone variety — Flame and Fury — is ready for harvest.

"I will sell out the peaches (Tuesday) that I picked yesterday (Monday)," said Chris Pellett, noting that late morning is the best time to find peaches at area fruit stands during a harvest that will continue into September.

The peach industry once fanned out across the Rogue Valley, covering about 1,500 acres. Today, it's roughly one-tenth the size it was 50 years ago, said veteran orchardist Ron Meyer. With the notable exception of peaches Harry & David produces in its Bear Creek Orchards operation for "Fruit of the Month Club" gift packs, the Red Havens, 49ers and other varieties grown locally are primarily sold locally.

"At one time, peaches from this valley were shipped to California," Meyer said. "Peach production is pretty much focused on the local market. They have huge operations in California that are pretty intense, so going to distant markets is just not profitable for us"

The shift began decades ago as hundreds of acres — once producing pit fruit from Talent to Gold Hill — slowly were converted to pear orchards, vineyards and houses. Still, there are a scattering of smaller growers, who have no trouble selling their limited production and have an eye toward modest expansion.

"The demand is sky-high," said Gary Hubler who grows a variety of fruit, including five free-stone peach varieties, in Medford and outside Phoenix.

Hubler has a half-acre now but has his eye on a plot of more than 7 acres near his pear blocks south of Phoenix.

"Finding agriculturally good ground with a supply of water and power is absolutely critical," Hubler said. "I've found another piece of land, but I don't know if I can afford it. It's close and well-drained."

The Pelletts grow a variety of fruits and vegetables to meet the diversified drive-by demand, so a few more peach growers isn't a big worry.

"We are seeing more people planting," said Chris Pellett, who made a first pass through the Old Stage Farm nectarines on Tuesday. "We think we're going to have a lot more competition than we've had."

Efforts to expand peach plantings at Valley View Orchard near Ashland have encountered natural resistance — deer.

Valley View grows certified organic Red Haven, Elberta and Sweet Sue peaches — along with SunGlo nectarines — on 6 acres. "We're often troubled by spring weather, with a lot of frost and hail, but neither of those affected us this year," said Kathy O'Leary, whose family has run the farm for the past 12 years. "It resulted in a pretty good fruit set, and it ripened up nicely.

"We've been trying to add more peaches, but we've had a hard time establishing a new planting because of the deer," she said. "Even the plants they don't eat get broken when they rub their antlers against them."

The answer, she said, has been to install a perimeter fence around the orchard.

O'Leary said customers come as far as Davis, Calif., north of Sacramento, as well as the coast and Klamath Basin.

Local varieties are priced, in general, from just less than a dollar per pound to about $2 per pound. "I think yield is about average," said Hubler. "It's not any heavier than last year — even though we've had years where it has been extremely heavy. The weather in March and April is a determining factor come harvest time. Peaches like warmth and like irrigation — but not all the time. Peaches like well-drained soils; they don't like wet feet."

The harvest is eight days ahead of 2011, "which was extremely late," Meyer said. "The nice warm weather, with 90 degrees fairly constant, has been good for the fruit."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.

Veteran orchardist Ron Meyer harvests peaches near Tarry Lane outside of Talent on Tuesday. Meyer remembers when the harvest was considerably larger for Rogue Valley peaches, which are now primarily consumed locally. - Julia Moore