April 10, 2013

This season's peach crop? It's the pits

For those counting the days until they take a bite of a Parker County peach, Jimmy Hutton has some advice.

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For those counting the days until they take a bite of a Parker County peach, Jimmy Hutton has some advice.

"If you see some peaches at a farmers market, you'd better snap them up," Hutton said. "You'd better not be picky this year. If you wait and come back the next day, they're likely to be gone."

Farmers across North Texas are bracing for a down year in peach production, mostly because two freezes in late March came when trees were in the vulnerable bloom stage.

The blast of cold on March 25-26 killed most of the blooms, leaving some growers with little or no hope.

"We're going to have some peaches, which I wasn't sure of a week ago, but we'll just have to see how many," said Hutton, whose family has about 5,000 trees in Parker County and also owns the Ridgmar Farmers Market in Fort Worth.

The late freeze didn't just hit North Texas.

Orchards in Freestone County, southeast of Dallas, as well as the Hill Country, also suffered losses. Parts of East Texas and South Texas fared better.

"Right now, I'm guessing we'll have about a third of the crop in Texas," said Steve Young, a grower in Charlie near Wichita Falls who is a former board member of the Texas Fruit Growers Association.

Young said the bad years are becoming the new normal for peach growers.

"Since 1997, we've had two bumper crops and probably two regular crops and the rest were losses," Young said.

"My father went 20 years without losing a crop. Some of that can be blamed on a change in practices -- we can't burn rubber tires like we used to do to keep the peaches warm -- but that doesn't explain all of it."

In Freestone County, another popular spot for peach lovers, the freeze didn't hit quite as hard, but it did make its mark, said Kathy Cooper of Cooper Farms near Fairfield.

In a normal year, she would already be picking peaches, but she now believes that the first ones won't be picked until mid-May.

"We're just waiting around on Mother Nature," Cooper said. "The peaches are definitely going to be late this year. We were impacted slightly by the freeze, but we had wind machines, which saved us. I think we'll have 60 to 65 percent of our crop this year."

'Slowly dying'

Johnny O'Bannon, 77, who has an orchard in Greenwood, west of Weatherford, isn't nearly as optimistic.

Looking across his orchard, he sees few blooms on his trees.

He estimates that his Red Globe peach trees -- his most popular -- lost 80 to 90 percent of their blooms while his Ranger peach trees fared a little better.

"We'll have peaches, but it won't be a whole lot and probably not enough to keep all of our regulars happy," O'Bannon said.

To make sure he has a harvest, he will stay up late and drive his four-wheeler around his property to scare off deer that love to munch on peaches as much as humans do.

"The only problem is they're getting smarter," O'Bannon said half-jokingly. "They change the time they come out at night and when you chase them, they tend to go around in a circle. At this point, they're almost like pets."

Like many growers, the O'Bannons aren't getting any younger.

Though they have grown children living next door, none have expressed an interest in taking over the orchard, citing the time commitment and the unreliable returns.

"I say the orchard is slowly dying and me and the orchard are going at the same time," O'Bannon said. "It used to be nothing but peaches around here, but now we're the only ones left."

'I think it's wiped out'

For another older grower, in Montague County, the freeze has been even more devastating.

John Doak, 86, has about 2,000 peach trees near Bowie. He has a loyal following of customers at the Cowtown Farmers Markets along the Benbrook Traffic Circle and in downtown Fort Worth. But they'll have to look elsewhere this year.

"I looked at my peach crop, and I think it's wiped out," said Doak, who plans to sell melons and vegetables this year.

Like the O'Bannons, Doak isn't convinced that his orchards will survive after he is gone.

He is one of three growers still around in the Bowie area, and he has no relatives to take over his orchards.

He has sold 5 acres to a worker who has helped him with his orchard and is willing to sell him 5 more.

"I am 86 years old," Doak said. "I tell people that I am one of the youngest farmers left."

The Huttons are an exception to that trend.

Already one of the largest growers in Parker County, they plan to add 5,000 trees as a third generation joins the family business.

"The boys want to do it and they've been working in the fields, so they know what they're getting into," Hutton said.

But the Huttons can't survive on peaches alone. The key, Hutton said, is being diversified.

Besides peaches, the family grows pecans, sells honey and has a cattle business.

"We may be known for peaches, but right now I would say the honey business is probably doing the best out of all of them," Hutton said.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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