Peach picking at peak across Michiana

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Michiana just got a lot sweeter, because we're at the peak of peach season. Anytime we're able to taste the juicy fruit, it's a sweet success story for farmers.

Each year, fruit farms are up against a rollercoaster of weather: drought, flood, frost, and freezes, to name a few. Despite this, 2021 turned out to be another fruitful year for peach farmers.

Mike Hildebrand is the owner and operator of Hildebrand Fruit Farms in Berrien Springs. He knows a thing or two about peaches, because he's grown up on this farm.

"My grandparents bought the place in 1927," he told me. "My dad was born in the house that we live in right now, and our kids are the fourth generation."

You might remember we had some warm spring temperatures this year, which woke up some of the trees a bit early.

"Everybody gets excited, they get to golf in March, and I tend to know how that's gonna end," Hildebrand explained. "We had many frosty nights in April and May."

On the 30 acres of peach trees, there are now three frost fans. The air circulation from these fans help protect the blooming trees.

While the flowers thrived this year, that isn't always the case. Hildebrand remembers a recent loss due to the cold.

"Two years ago, we had one peach on our farm because of the polar vortex," he recalled. "It actually killed trees that we've been in the process of replacing."

When I commented that farmers have adapted well, he reminded me that there wasn't really another option.

"That's farming, right? You're at the mercy of Mother Nature," he said. "She's going to do what she wants to do, and you just grin and bear it."

Through the summer, the fruit also faced some hail, which can put an end to the season before it even starts.

The amount of rain is also important for fruit. For Hildebrand, water can be added when necessary by irrigation.

I wondered if there was any impact on taste or juiciness by the amount of rain.

"Maybe a little bit," Hildebrand said. "Peaches are juicy, regardless. Even when it's dry, we'll irrigate so they're plenty juicy."

Okay, how about the sweetness of the peaches?

"In a dry year, they may be a little sweeter, but we've had zero complaints on our peaches so far this year."

Hildebrand even gave me a big box of peaches to share with the newsroom. Jennifer Lee, Summer Horan, and Meteorologist Emily Kennedy approved the taste!

This specific farm has a full crop this year, so they've been busy. Other peach farms in the area have full or nearly full crops, so there are plenty of peaches for everyone.

"It is so much more fun to have a crop of peaches," he told me. "The phone rings, and people want more, and I just get to say, 'yes.' It's not 'maybe,' or 'well, we'll see.' It's just 'yes, when do you want to come?'"

You can find more information about the farm by clicking here. Depending on the day, you can either pick up fresh fruit from their farm or their packing facility, which houses peaches from 15 to 20 growers.

At the packing facility, peaches travel down a series of conveyor belts. Workers remove leaves from the peaches, and machines take a series of rapid photographs of each individual peach. This way, every classification like shape, size, and color of the peach is known before it is delivered to anyone.

There are also two large refrigerated rooms. Here, the product can be stored for longer periods of time, even beyond the end of the picking season. Hildebrand showed me a giant set of fresh peaches that was destined for Martin's Super Markets.

Peaches in the refrigerated room at the packing facility

As he explained the entire process to me, Hildebrand was beaming with pride.

"Enjoy what this area offers, because there's not many places in the world that can do what we do," he told me. "People kind of take beaches, and fruit, and wineries, and stuff like that for granted, but it is what makes our areas unique. Make sure you support the farms."

The peach crop is expected to last for about two more weeks. After that time, you'll be able to find sweet corn, Bartlett's pears, and apples at Hildebrand Fruit Farms, which also seem to be looking good despite the weather.

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