Washington ranks No. 2 in the country for growing nectarines, but many believe the state is first when it comes to quality.
And the popularity of nectarines is causing Robin French of Ray French Orchard in Richland to make some changes.
“Fewer people do any canning now, but more people just like eating fruit and don’t like messing with the peach skin,” said French, who manages the U-pick orchard near Badger Mountain. “I’m looking to plant some more nectarine trees.”
The difference between a nectarine and a peach is simple.
“The peach has that fuzz coating to protect it, and some varieties have a lot more fuzz than others,” French said.
James Michael, promotion director for the Washington State Fruit Commission in Yakima, told the Herald, “They are essentially grown and marketed the same, sometimes within the same ad. I’ve noticed more and more consumers commenting on a wonderful nectarine.”
Akin to peaches, there are cling and freestone varieties of nectarines, as well as yellow or white flesh.
“We have both, and they eat totally different,” French said. “The whites tend to be closer to pear-like in their taste.”
Overall, the 2012 harvest for nectarines was satisfying.
“It’s been a good year, but I wouldn’t call it excellent,” French said. “The crop size is down a little, but the quality is very good. I can’t complain, though. In Sunnyside, they got golf ball-sized hail in some spots.”
Nectarines also are more vulnerable to pests than peaches, particularly in the spring, French said.
“Aphids like the nectarines because they don’t have to crawl through the fuzz, and thrips come around the same time,” he said. “They will make the skin bumpy and leave little points, which make the fruit misshapen and rough. You want a nectarine with a smooth and glossy finish.”
And then there are sparrows.
“They really like the Fire Sweets,” he said. “They will peck a hole, which leaves a little dish. There is always something out there trying to get your fruit.”
French said he bought most of his tree material from Van Well Nursery in Wenatchee and Dave Wilson Nursery near Modesto, Calif., and the nurseries help drive research because of the royalty fees generated by selling the varieties they breed.
Nationally, some nectarines have been taken out of production. In 2011, there were 28,400 acres in production compared with 30,300 acres in 2009. Much of the reduction was driven by California, which had as many as 36,500 acres of nectarine trees as recently as 2002, but some orchards have been replanted to citrus or nut trees.
Washington had 1,400 acres in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of that, 644 acres are organic.
“The vast majority of our peaches and nectarines come from the Yakima Valley and Wenatchee area, particularly along the river, but there are orchards scattered throughout the state,” Michael said.
One of the largest growers of nectarines in the Columbia Basin is Hi Point Orchard in Mesa, which also is one of the state’s largest organic producers.
Ray French Orchard has just an acre of nectarines planted.
“More of our acreage is in peaches, but I plan on planting more nectarines,” French said. “They are real sensitive to the wind, though. The leaf action of rubbing on the fruit marks them up. The fuzz protects the peaches more.”
The sweet white Snow Crimson is one of French’s early ripening nectarines. And the Summer Beaut is a yellow freestone with a tangy flavor.
The Ruby Diamond, another yellow freestone, is tangier and gets dark red. And the Fantasia eats like an Elberta peach minus the fuzz. Fire Sweet turns ripe around the first of September.
In Washington, the last and most popular variety of nectarine to ripen is the Summer Blush.
“Trying to predict when they are ready is like trying to predict when a baby is going to be born,” French said. “It can change by the week.”
In 2011, Summer Blush was the most widely planted variety in Washington at 156 acres, although Honey Royale is close at 153 acres, and Red Gold ranking third at 131 acres.
French, a 1971 Richland High grad, began managing the orchard in 1992 with his dad, Ray French Sr. Since his dad died in 2009 at age 90, French runs the orchard for his mother.
“I’m always looking to grow something better,” French said. “The main reason is to try to stay ahead of the competition. There may be someone in Benton City or Pasco who is doing this, so if you have a new variety that people really like, maybe more people will come to your place and buy it. If you can get the consumer the best-eating stuff, they will keep coming back.”
Price, however, is the biggest factor, French said.
“If they charge $2 a pound for peaches or nectarines at Fred Meyer, we try to keep our price at $1 a pound, otherwise I don’t know if it’s worth it for people to come out and get them,” French said.
When it comes to eating nectarines, he’s not picky.
“I pretty much I like them fresh, although I do like nectarine pie,” French said.
The orchard is at 921 Harvest Lane PR NE in Richland. For more information, call 627-3673 or go to rayfrenchorchard.yolasite.com.