Peach growers hoping for best crop in a while

07/07/2014 2:56 PM

07/07/2014 5:12 PM

Just outside of Weatherford, the O’Bannon family peach trees are thriving.

“It is finally a good year,” said Jean O’Bannon, who has been farming 7.5 acres with her husband, John, for 17 years. “And it’s about time.”

After a string of bad years that featured late freezes, hail, extreme heat and drought, area growers are harvesting what they say is the best crop in recent years, just in time for Saturday’s Parker County Peach Festival.

The 30th annual peach festival is expected to draw more than 30,000 visitors to downtown Weatherford, where festivalgoers can enjoy live music, children’s activities, arts and crafts, food booths, and of course, an abundant supply of the signature fruit. The festival also will feature the annual Peach Pedal Bike Ride and a 42 tournament for players of the domino game that has been called the National Game of Texas.

A record 225 vendors have signed up to sell their wares, from condominium chicken coops to homemade beauty supplies. Organizers also launched an Instagram contest, in which prizes will be given for the best festival photos.

“The peach festival is really about family and tradition,” said Tammy Gazzola, president of Weatherford Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event. “It’s like an old-fashioned county fair on a very large scale. This community really comes together.”

In past years, the festival has been forced to import peaches from other parts of Texas. Not this year.

“It looks like a bumper crop,” Gazzola said. “We’re thrilled.”

Spring and early summer rain, combined with mostly mild temperatures, have helped boost the crop, said Parker County extension agent Jon Green. This year’s peaches might be slightly larger than the last couple of years, he said, and some growers were even forced to thin trees.

“Compared to the last couple of years, this is a very good crop,” said Green, adding that a late freeze in April left most peach trees unharmed.

Gary Hutton, who owns Hutton Fruit Farm, one of the largest peach producers in Parker County with 40 acres, said the fruit can be hard to grow in unpredictable weather. The farm just west of Weatherford lost some because of the April freeze, but the trees are growing well now.

“Peaches need rain, but not too much rain,” said Hutton, who has grown them for 34 years. “They need cold, but not too cold. And they can’t take any hail.”

Last year, three April freezes wiped out the entire peach crop at the O’Bannons. This year, the biggest obstacles have been high winds and hungry deer.

“The deer like the peaches about as much as people do,” O’Bannon said. “We have to sit outside and chase them off all night.”

Peach farms once dotted the Parker County landscape, growers say, but now many family farms have shut down, replaced by residential subdivisions. The O’Bannon’s farm, for example, is now surrounded by homes.

Parker County is home to roughly a dozen peach growers, Green said, less than half the number just 20 years ago.

“A lot of our growers have gotten older and retired or gotten out of the business,” Green said. “It’s an industry you don’t see a whole lot of young people jumping into. It’s very labor intensive, and we have the Metroplex right here with plentiful jobs.”

Still, O’Bannon said, Parker County will always be known for its peaches. Green said the sandy loam soil is perfect, and the climate is just right, offering enough cold days for the peaches to set fruit.

“Parker County peaches just taste so good,” O’Bannon said. “This land is really made for growing peaches.”

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