Kate, Matt, Leigh, and Evan Hornyak always look forward to the mid-July start to peach harvest season on their Geauga County orchard. Photo provided by Hornyak Farms.

Peaches elevating Hornyak Farms

By Matt Reese

It’s all about the elevation.

An older neighbor who remembered peach production on the location many years earlier suggested Matt and Leigh Hornyak plant some peach trees shortly after the couple got married and purchased the property. Though peaches can be tricky to grow for many orchards due to the risks of late frost damage and fragile early blooms, the 1,300-foot elevation of the Hornyak orchard in Geauga County allows for consistently delicious peach production.

“The air stratifies so much. You can’t see it, but it’s like water. The cold air is going to go down low and as long as you’re talking about a situation where it’s 5 or 6 hours, you’re fine. If you start getting to 12 hours or more of freezing temperatures, at that point the cold air will move up those hills and we will definitely run into a situation where the cold air gets up to towards the orchard,” Matt Hornyak said. “But the orchard sits really high and we think that’s one of our biggest attributes of being able to get a crop off year after year.”

The elevation provides a natural advantage because loss to spring frost is the single biggest threat to a successful peach crop. Even so, several factors have to coordinate to cause significant loss, which has only happened a couple of times in their 20 years of growing peaches. From their initial planting of 300 trees in 2000, the orchard has expanded to 1,200 trees spread over 10 acres, achieving full production maturity within 3 years.

“We’re always concerned as we’re coming out of winter going into spring and how far the trees get pushed ahead. When we have some of those unseasonably warm temperatures really early on the trees move along a little prematurely. At that point, we get kind of concerned because if we start to get into a situation where buds start to swell and then possibly open and we’re still too early, we know that we probably are going to have some cold weather still to come. That’s when we get nervous. If it’s a typical year where we roll out of winter and stay in the 30s and 40s at night and get into the 60s during the day, we feel very confident that we can have a decent crop once we get to April 25. But if we get into the 70s during the first part of April it pushes the trees along and we start getting prepared,” he said. “When the bud first opens, a pistol comes out of the center and that is the most critical time. When the pistol — which is the longest green stem in the center — first comes out, prior to that getting pollinated, that is the biggest risk.”

In that critical period, just a couple of degrees difference can have a tremendous impact.

“The threshold is 28 degrees. If we get below 27 degrees or less at the wrong time, it is around a 90% loss. If we just get down to 30 degrees, it is only a 10% loss, which can be just a decent thinning,” Hornyak said. “When those events come along in the spring we do try some preventative measures — running some orchard heaters and some smudge pots to try and keep things on the warmer side. A smudge pot puts out a nice heavy smoke layer, heat rises and it creates a chimney. It mixes air and sends the cold air down. Even if you’re only making a couple degree difference, you’re playing in a small window and you have to make sure you do everything in your favor to try and help that situation.”

This photo from a very chilly April 21, 2021in the Hornyak peach orchard shows the measures taken to protect the fruit. Photo by Evan Hornyak.

Once the threat of frost has passed, the pruning season begins.

“We try to run pretty aggressive pruning program to keep the trees pruned back because this is a pick-your-own operation and we try and keep them nice and small. Basically, 12-foot trees are what we’re shooting for so that people can pick while standing on the ground. We don’t allow any ladders or anything like that in our orchards,” he said. “First year wood is where your peaches actually grow, so you have to have a good pruning program. If we wait to prune a little later, we know how the frost has been, so we’ll prune heavy if there was no frost damage and prune light if there was. We do an ‘open center’ style of pruning. Trees grow a central leader and we remove it on purpose so the tree has an open top to get more sunlight into the canopy this helps dry out the canopy faster, which aids in reducing fungus and insect problems. We also remove anything growing straight down or up or back into the tree, leaving 3 to 4 scaffold branches coming off the tree. We want those scaffold branches coming out from the trunk at a 45-degree angle.”

As the leaves appear and temperatures rise, the spraying program begins, involving the application of insecticides and fungicides.

“One of our biggest hurdles early in the season is peach leaf curl, which we will typically spray for. It seemed to be exceptionally bad this year for whatever reason. We think we’ve got ours under control,” he said. “Typically, we’re on a 14- to 21-day spray pattern once we come out of dormancy. We’ll put on two sprays — sprayable copper and sulfur to knock down fungi for the season. We spray on the bark before bud break first thing in spring in early April and last thing in fall in November. In general, fungi are the biggest challenge with peaches, more than insects, but we do see peach leaf borer and oriental fruit moth. We put traps around the orchard to give us an idea of when to spray and what to spray for depending on the year and how much disease and insect pressure we feel that we’re getting. We spray more aggressive fungicides early on and back off later in the season because of the you-pick. We can also see brown rot as the peaches start to get ready or split pits when the peach grows too fast. That can be a problem when it gets dry and then we get a nice rain.”

Protecting the leaves is important.

“We have to grow great foliage,” Hornyak said. “We’re looking at anywhere in the neighborhood of 40 leaves per peach. You’ll grow nice fruit if you can grow nice foliage.”

After 15 years of production, the trees are removed and the ground is planted to sweet corn, pumpkins, and/or cover crops for multiple years before going back to peach trees. In spring, 9-23-30 is applied for fertility and then as peaches develop, they are spoon fed granular urea with some foliar sprays for nutrients as well. Beneath the trees, weed control is done through a combination of pre-emerge herbicide and mowing.

The growing season stays very busy for the family. Along with peaches the Hornyaks, with the help of their grown children Evan and Kate, host a fall festival with pumpkins and a corn maze. They also grow sweet corn and field corn and soybeans. The busiest time on the farm is the pick-your-own peach harvest.

“Harvest season presents a variety of challenges, extending beyond the simple act of customers picking fruit. Nevertheless, we truly enjoy this period,” Hornyak said. “We have great customers. We look forward to dealing with them and they’re typically very respectful of the property. We are very lucky with the customer base that we have.”

So far in 2024, Hornyak said the mild spring set the stage for a particularly bountiful 2024 peach harvest. The harvest will be from mid-July through August.

“We grow six varieties. Our first variety comes on around July 15, followed by our staple Red Haven, which is normally about the beginning of August. We’ll pick Red Havens for another 2 weeks and then we have some other varieties that take us all the way through the month,” he said.

The peaches are weighed and sold by the pound and customers are sent to the orchard with peck- (12 to 15 pounds) or quart-sized baskets to fill. The orchard is ribboned off by variety.

“Local patrons make up about 90% of our clientele, but recently, we’ve been welcoming more new customers, which has led to a challenge in keeping our trees fully stocked with fruit,” Hornyak said. “People often need some education on picking. I tell them when you look at the fruit, it should be a little bit pliable and when it is coming off the tree, you’re looking for yellowish red in color where it’s coming off the tree and no green by the stem. If it is yellowish red it is ready. If it is a little green, that is still ok because they will be ready in a couple of days. Our customers value the fact that our fruit is ripened on the tree, which is particularly significant for peaches as it enhances their quality—something you can’t find just anywhere. In fact, they’re so juicy, you wouldn’t want to wear a nice shirt while eating one,” he said.

For more about the operation, visit hornyakfarms.com.

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