MONROEVILLE, N.J. — In this epicenter of New Jersey peach production, where the landscape filled with rows and rows of peach trees has helped boost the Garden State's peach crop to fourth largest in the nation, farmer John Hurff finds himself doing things the old-fashioned way.
Several years ago, he decided to stop wholesaling and began selling his peaches, hand picked and hand sorted, directly to those who eat them.
And this summer, his customers will be treated to what he and others are calling a bumper crop. For a fruit so sensitive to the weather as peaches are, the weather has been "near perfect," the state agriculture secretary says.
William Schober Sons was started in 1896 by Hurff's maternal great-grandfather, the farm's namesake, who came from Germany.
Hurff's is one of 92 peach orchards statewide that make up a patchwork of farms, large and small, that harvest enough of the sweet, tangy fruit to place the state behind only California, South Carolina, and Georgia in peach production nationwide.
In 2015, the latest year for which statistics are available, New Jersey harvested 42.2 million pounds of the fruit, valued at $27.6 million, from 4,700 acres of orchards.
This year in New Jersey, a continued stretch of good weather — no heavy frosts and a relatively dry, but not too dry, spring — allowed the blooms on the trees time to "set up" and become plentiful, according to Santo Maccherone, president of the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council.
So many blooms ultimately maturing into fruit in the orchards, and continued good weather — hot, sunny, and with few storms knocking mature fruit off the trees — through the picking season, will mean a larger than usual harvest, Maccherone said.
And Garden State peach growers are being handed a double bonus because, despite the abundance, prices will at least hold steady because poor weather has hurt production outside New Jersey. An unseasonably warm winter and a badly timed spring freeze have devastated the peach crop in South Carolina and Georgia.
In New Jersey, Gloucester County is the top peach-producing area, with Cumberland, Camden, Atlantic, and Salem Counties also considered major growing areas, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
Now at the midway point in the peach harvest season, half-bushels are selling for around $26, while gallon baskets are selling for around $4. Prices locally are about average compared with the last several years.
Years ago, before farm-to-table became a trend, Hurff halted wholesaling through a produce broker and began selling what he grows through a vast wooden stand that runs alongside his barn at the corner of Monroeville Road and Buck Road and at weekly pop-up farmers markets, including in Ocean City and Margate. Hurff, 53, said the wholesale numbers — including paying a middleman — weren't adding up favorably for him.
Through strictly retailing his wares, the idea was to maintain the property as "an old-fashioned American family farm" that he could pass down to his three children, Hurff said.
And so far it has worked, as his two sons and daughter have come on board, and a movement of consumers concerned about where their food actually comes from has grown.
"People really want to know what has gone into growing their food," Hurff said. "And it's been really rewarding for us as a family, and our farm, to be a part of that."
Sandra Romano, 70, a retired teacher from Glassboro, said her family has been buying peaches at Schober's for years.
"We wait for the peaches to start coming in and then we're here every week until they're done for the season," said Romano, who makes pies and cobblers from the peaches but also enjoys "eating them out of hand."
Hurff said his orchard has expanded to about 30 acres, where eight different varieties of peaches are grown, each with different harvest dates through the growing season, which generally runs from late June until mid-September.
"We used to harvest the peaches in big wooden boxes that would be shipped off to the produce auction," Hurff said of his operation. "Now we pick in baskets and they are hand-sorted by the ladies each morning."
"The ladies" are mostly high school and college-age women who work at the stand. Each morning, and sometimes in the afternoons, peaches are brought into a garage-like room beside the stand on a tractor-pulled wagon or truck. They are washed and then the fruit is hand-sorted, based on size and ripeness.
The peaches are sorted into smaller baskets — half bushel, peck, and gallon size — to be displayed for sale upon the wooden bleacher-like shelves of the stand.
Several miles away, at Duffield's Farm Market in Sewell, where the late Claude Duffield started his farm toward the end of the Great Depression, the family has always sold its produce directly to consumers, said the founder's grandson David Duffield, 56.
The family's business has grown from a roadside stand started by Duffield's grandmother around 1937 to a full-blown indoor grocery-style market that was built in the 1960s. That market in turn has grown to include more buildings where the family sells its top-of-the-line produce and baked goods made on the premises.
"Our goal has always been to grow the best crops we can and sell them directly to our customer," said Duffield, who grows peaches on about 25 acres.
Nearby, at Holtzhauser Farms, in Mullica Hill, a larger grower with 144 acres dedicated to peaches, as many as 29,000 half-bushels of peaches will be sold at its farm stand or through a wholesale broker in New York, said farmer Tom Holtzhauser Jr.
Holtzhauser, whose family started the farm in 1897, said preparing his peaches for sale is a painstaking process. It begins with his crew of five men carefully picking the fruit by hand and placing it in large bins that are brought to a processing center where it is machine washed and sized. Peaches are hand-picked because the fruit is so delicate that it can bruise and rot quickly if not properly handled.
"The pickers really must discern which pieces of fruit to pick at the optimum time," Holtzhauser said. "There is no robotic arm that can do that job."
Although the picking is done by hand, some larger distributors — who may grow their own peaches but also handle product from smaller growers — will use machines to wash and sort the fruit by size before it is packed in waxed cardboard cases that are sent to wholesalers, supermarkets, and other retail outlets.
New Jersey peach growers constantly "look to different streams of income" to be competitive, Douglas Fisher, the state's secretary of agriculture, said in an interview.