CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) _ Stop complaining about those long, hot, dry days of summer. They're about to give you a big, sticky crop of sweet Southern Illinois peaches.

Orchard owners began picking early varieties of peaches last week, and by all indications, this year's yield will be bigger than last year's better-than-average crop _ with perfect conditions in southernmost Illinois making up for losses in other parts of the state.

Fruit growers in Jackson and Union counties say the mild spring brought no frosts to kill off peach buds, and the warm, dry summer so far has been perfect for peach trees.

But brutal waves of winter cold washed over orchards from Madison County north in January, damaging the ability of peach trees from there to Michigan to set fruit in the spring, said Brad Taylor, an associate professor of plant and soil science at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

Even so, growers expect to harvest very close to a full crop _ well over last year's 7,500 tons.

``We're going to have so many peaches we're going to have to sell some to farmers' markets in St. Louis. We can't physically handle them all,'' said Larry Eckert, whose family owns a large pick-your-own orchard in St. Clair County.

In fact, Eckert said, this summer's crop could be the best his family has had in 20 years. Three years ago, the peach crop at Eckert's and other orchards was a complete loss. It has steadily improved since.

Larry Flamm of Flamm Orchards in Cobden said the ideal weather conditions so far this summer should mean a more constant supply of fresh peaches throughout the summer. Different varieties mature at different times, he said.

``Some of the varieties last year were a little light, but this year, they're all full,'' he said. ``It looks like a good crop, a bumper crop.''

The mild winter and spring do mean more work for growers. Without harsh weather to kill off buds, some growers are taking to the orchards to sweep off young buds before they have a chance to blossom into fruit.

Others will wait until the fruit begins growing to thin out the crop, Taylor said.

That helps trees produce big, juicy peaches. But the weather has to cooperate, and so far it has.

Dry, hot, sunny weather helps peach trees produce fruit high in sugar and moderate in water _ meaning they will be sweet, juicy, and very peachy smelling.


CHICAGO (AP) _ Rifling through garbage cans and sneaking into unsuspecting people's homes, an exploding population of raccoons is making a nuisance of itself in suburbs and on farms all over Illinois this summer.

And believe it or not, officials say, the tumbling Russian ruble is to blame.

Hundreds of thousands of the pesky critters' lives were spared last year as the devaluation of the Russian currency caused the demand for fur to plummet and many Illinois fur trappers to quit the business.

That means more raccoons escaped to produce a bumper crop of kits this year, causing the population to grow from the typical nine to 45 per square mile to 101 raccoons per square mile in parts of McHenry, Kane and Cook counties.

``Think about this from a global standpoint with wild fur as an agricultural product,'' said George Hubert, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. ``Demand goes down, and harvests go down, which plays a substantial role in the population growth.''

Illinois _ one of the top five wild-fur exporting states _ supplies up to 300,000 raccoon pelts to foreign countries. About 80 percent of those pelts used to go to Russia.

But when the Russia's banking system collapsed, Illinois' wild fur exports to the country dropped from $3 million in 1996 to $1 million in 1998.