Weatherford peach growers expect bumper crop this year

WEATHERFORD -- After a string of years of fickle weather -- too dry, too wet, too warm, too cold -- Texas peach growers are picking the first blush of what is expected to be a bumper harvest.

"It's the best crop in years," said Gary Hutton of Hutton Farms, the largest peach producer in Parker County. "It's been since 2006 that it was this good."

A late frost last year decimated the local crop. The pickings were so slim that the Parker County Peach Festival had to import peaches from around Texas.

That won't be a problem for this year's festival July 10, said Hutton, 50.

The same is expected for the much bigger Hill Country harvest.

"It's going to be a banner year. And it's about time," said Jim Kamas, a fruit specialist for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service office in Gillespie County, where about 40 percent of the Texas peach crop is produced from about 1,200 acres of orchards.

The last decade has been particularly tough.

"We've had a run of low chilling years, late spring frosts, spring floods and then the worst drought in recorded history. It has been pretty rough." said Kamas, who's also an assistant professor at Texas A&M University.

But since the Central Texas drought broke, the weather has been just peachy.

"We had a beautiful long wet winter. Two kinds of people like that kind of weather: duck hunters and fruit growers," Kamas said.

"Then we had a protracted spring and very little spring frost. It's led to a perfect season. The quality is high, and we're just reaching our peak."

Peach-wise locals in Parker County are already tuned into the rhythms of the season.

Last week, Jean Crow of Weatherford made the first of what she expects will be multiple visits to the Hutton Farms fruit stand a few miles west of Weatherford to pick out her favorite variety -- overripe ones.

She paid little mind to the picture-perfect Surecrop peaches, instead asking Maegan Hutton, 19, to bring out the soft, fragrant and extra-juicy fruits that only a peach connoisseur could love.

"You have to deal with them the day you buy them, but they are perfect for cobblers," Crow laughed. "Plus, they're cheaper. I peel 'em, slice 'em and freeze 'em. I keep coming back until the season is done."

A new problem

Gary Hutton and his son Jay, 21, have been dealing with a different stripe of peach fans this year at one of the family's orchards.

The 18-acre plot has hundreds of 3-year-old trees that are heavily laden with their first yield. Many of the small trees have broken limbs where feral hogs and deer have climbed aboard for a meal.

"Pigs are a brand-new problem," Gary Hutton said, pointing to a small damaged tree, where the ground is littered with fresh peach pits left behind by wild porkers.

Jay Hutton killed five feral hogs in May and more pig trapping is planned. The family is also considering adding a deer fence.

"There's a lot of things that can affect you," Gary Hutton said. "Frost, drought, winds, hail, deer, pigs and even gophers," that tear through tender young root systems.

It's an occupational hazard, Kamas said.

On average, Texas growers can expect to lose a crop every seven years, he said.

But the average hasn't been holding up of late.

"We lost four of the last eight years to spring freezes. In 2006, we had a big crop but then got covered in rains. And the last two years have been dried out. Last year, everything was wiped out. It was a double whammy -- a spring freeze and then it was bone dry," Kamas said

In two other recent years, the "chilling was insufficient," he said, noting that peaches require a certain number of hours of winter temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees to break dormancy and to induce blooms and growth.

"We're finally getting one come our way. These growers needed this one," he said.

Faced with those uncertain odds, most peach growers try to diversify their portfolio by other crops and cattle, Kamas said.

The demographics are changing, he said, with fewer large orchards of 80 to 200 acres. "We're losing the large, older orchards. Now we have more smaller plots."

The family farm

The Huttons cultivate about 40 acres of peaches on multiple plots.

"It's best to have them spread around so wind or hail don't get everything," Gary Hutton said.

Peaches are their primary crop, but they also grow plums and pecans as well as raise cattle and process honey.

Gary and his brother Jimmy Hutton, 48, further diversified and expanded their market by starting the Ridgmar Farmer's Market with other Weatherford-area farmers.

Charles Hutton, 77, bought the family's first orchard 35 years ago while he was working at Bell Helicopter.

He gave his sons a choice: They could go to college, or he could buy the farm.

"The boys had to have that place," he said. "They wanted it instead of college."

Now, the two brothers run the operations with help from eight relatives.

They grow 12 varieties of peaches, which prolongs the season because they ripen at different times.

"The season is like a slow-moving freight train. It starts slow and then picks up speed," Gary Hutton said. The peak will come in mid-July, and in a good year, the harvest can stretch until October.

Peach trees produce for about 15 years, so the Huttons plant trees every year. A mature tree can produce up to 10 bushels of fruit a year, but most average four to five, he said.

Gary and Jay Hutton's favorite variety is the Red Globe, which ripens in mid-July.

"But I like them all. I've had about a half dozen today," said Jay Hutton, who attends Weatherford College while working on the farm.

Maegan Hutton, who attends Lubbock Christian University and works at the fruit stand in the summer, is not so keen on peaches.

"I don't even like cobbler," she admits.

But she does have one weakness: the homemade peach ice cream at The Malt Shop, an old-school drive-in burger joint in Weatherford.

"That I can eat any time," she said.

STEVE CAMPBELL, 817-390-7981