RUSTON, La. (AP) — Getting out of bed every morning isn't as much fun as it used to be for Joe Mitcham.
When the 58-year-old peach farmer looks across his 100-acre grove, he sees trees dying a slow death, due to an uninhibited fungus, along with plenty of open spaces where productive trees once blossomed.
These days, the rolling red clay hills of Mitcham's orchard aren't producing the dollars they once did. He lost money for the first time last year, since the freeze years, and in order to meet demand, he's forced to supplement his crop with peaches imported from South Carolina — something that doesn't make his chest swell.
On an almost daily basis, he's asked how much longer he'll continue to sell the peaches that have been eaten by multiple presidents and dignitaries around the country.
"Everybody has been asking me that for five years — and I say, 'next year, next year,'" Mitcham said, smiling. "My secretary has been here six years and every year I've told her this is the last year."
Knowing another growing season is coming doesn't put a smile on the face of the lifelong Lincoln Parish resident.
"To be honest, I'm not sure I don't dread it now, because I know no matter what I do with my peaches, it's not gonna be what it used to be — and not profitable," Mitcham said. "I'm going to have to become a produce broker at some point and time, if I continue in this. I lost money last year. My orchard is already not profitable."
Mother Nature is among the many things that have contributed to the demise of the peach production in north central Louisiana, but nothing has had the effect of Armillaria mellea, a root fungus without a chemical solution. Thanks to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which banned the use of methyl bromide in 2005, the oak root fungus continues to decimate the trees.
"I started seeing the problem in 2005, although only 200 trees died that year (out of the 9,600) — but the whole orchard was pretty young and healthy," Mitchum said. "I lost 700 last year, and generally lose 10 to 15 percent of the trees each year."
To alleviate the problem, Mitcham would have to remove blocks of trees, treat the soil and replant.
"Then have four years of no income. So, that's really not an option," he said. "They're working on a disease-resistant root stock.
"But the problem you have with that is that these trees are nematode resistant. That's what we were putting the (methyl bromide) in the ground for, and the side benefit was it controlled the fungus."
Meanwhile, the 2004 LSU AgCenter Farmer of the Year contemplates his next step.
One recent afternoon, several vehicles pulled up to the loading dock beside the processing plant with people looking for peaches that weren't there. A family of four walked across the road, separating the plant from the orchard, and posed for photos in front of a peach-laden tree. Next to it was another tree that had succumbed to the fungus.
Mitcham looked at the sight he's seen repeated thousands of times, smiled and shrugged.
"I've really enjoyed working with people — and the pride of having a really good product," he said simply. "That's been a good motivator."
Information from: The Times, http://www.shreveporttimes.com