Feature: Wednesday, July 4, 2002
Peach vs. Impostor

When fruit becomes big business, good taste gets left in Parker County. Fortunately, that’s not far away.

By Gayle Reaves

The food at Bonnell’s Restaurant is many steps removed from plain home-cookin’. Sauces, creative flavor combinations, exotic ingredients spice up the menu. And proprietor Jon Bonnell has sophisticated views on the use of local and Texas native products. Take peaches, for example.

“The best way to enjoy a peach,” he said, “is with a peach in one hand and a paper towel in the other.”

Indeed, peach-eating — juice dribbling down your chin, staining everything in sight, gone in four bites — is a pleasure that has been native to Texas for a lot longer than watching football or listening to Willie Nelson. Peach partisans in North Texas have been luckier than most. A few minutes west of Fort Worth, Parker County has been growing peaches for well over a hundred years — maybe even longer than there has been a Parker County.

This time of year — or almost any time — the produce counters of local grocery stores are piled high with the luscious-looking red-orange-golden-yellow globes — but very few of them are from Parker County.

At least, the stuff in the stores looks like peaches, but that’s where the resemblance stops. Whether it’s a little store on the East Side or a gigantic super-Target in the trendy southwest, in most groceries in Fort Worth — and in most of Texas — one bite proves the sad truth. The fruit is hard. Their texture is mealy. And there’s no more sweetness, no more flavor than in a picture of a peach painted on cardboard.

So, a few miles away from one of the mother lodes of peachdom, how come it’s so hard to find an edible peach in a Fort Worth grocery store? The answer is a classic modern tale, in which bureaucracy, big corporations, marketing, science, and mindless consumers have combined to produce the mystery of the impostor peaches. In the meantime, urban sprawl, the growing American distaste for manual labor, and some local peach politics have reduced the supply — and maybe the future — of the real thing.

At Weatherford’s single farmer-owned produce market, Beth Murphy is selling peaches as fast as she can get them — juicy tree-ripened peaches, from the orchards of her family and her partners, along with the vegetables and fruits and flowers that help cover the lease payment on the market building. In the first weeks of June, the little Early Glow variety provided a two-bite burst of delight. As the summer progresses, other varieties mature, and the flavor quotient of the peaches builds, heading toward the Parker County Peach Festival, this year on July 13.

Beth, sun-browned and friendly, gestures with a peach in her hand. Across the street, Albertson’s doesn’t offer locally grown peaches to its customers, she said, — only one store in town does. (A Weatherford Albertson’s official said they’ve been trying to buy them without success.) The Murphys don’t know how much longer Parker County farmers will be able to sell direct to the public in their county seat. Lease payments at the Weatherford market drove Beth and Wayne Murphy and another peach-farming family, the Huttons, to build the Ridgmar Farmer’s Market in Fort Worth a couple of years ago. “We all feel like we’ve been run out of Weatherford,” Wayne Murphy said — a claim that city officials dispute.

A peach looks good with lots of fuzz

Man’s no peach and never was

— Burma Shave sign

Some peaches just weren’t born to make that burst of flavor in somebody’s mouth. They were born and bred to get big, to make it to market unbruised, to look pretty — even to be less fuzzy. But taste? That’s pretty far down on the list of sought-after qualities.

The vast majority of peaches that make it to Fort Worth grocery stores are grown on the East or West Coast. Texas growers — in East Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, and the Hill Country, as well as Parker County — beset by late freezes, hailstorms, and other weather worries, don’t grow enough to come anywhere near meeting the demand. In fact, California’s San Joaquin Valley supplies about 80 percent of the peaches (and plums and nectarines) grown in the United States. In the global economy of today, California doesn’t seem that distant. But it’s far enough to make a big difference to a peach, in many different ways.

Dr. Jody Worthington was a horticulturist with Texas A&M University for 33 years, directing horticultural work at a research station at Stephenville and concentrating largely on the growing of peaches.

“We hear lots of complaints” about grocery store peaches, he said, and he knows some of the reasons why — grocers say that people “shop with their eyes,” so they put a premium on appearance.

Grocers used to ask growers for peaches that were about 2 1/4 inches in diameter but now it’s 2 1/2 inches — “or people think they look like runts.” To get peaches to grow big enough early enough, he said, many growers in California and on the East Coast irrigate them to the point that “it seems to dilute the sugars and acids, and gives a pretty bland taste.”

Worthington also said his research has shown, over the years, that peaches with the most intense flavor come from trees that have had plenty of chilly — below 45-degree — weather. Parker County varieties — and most California varieties — require 800 to 900 “chilling hours,” compared to about 100 hours required by varieties grown in places like Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. “We have never been able to develop quite the same flavor in the low-chilling peach,” he said — meaning that North Texas’ cooler climate apparently gives quality while taking away quantity.

Marilyn Dolan, consumer programs director of the California Tree Fruit Agreement, readily agrees that chances are good that Texas peaches taste better — and not just because the ones in California have to be picked earlier.

“We in California are huge suppliers, and our operation is extremely commercial,” Dolan said. Her organization is a marketing group that represents 2,000 California growers.

“Our growers grow fruit that will ship well,” she said. In choosing and developing varieties, they “look for fruit that will give high yield, with low fuzz, that will ship well and have high color. Consumers do like red on the fruit. Many yellow varieties that were good eating, we don’t grow anymore.” They breed low-fuzz varieties because many shoppers apparently say they don’t like fuzzy fruit.

Taste, she said, “for many years was not a priority.” But recently, she said, “Duh — we finally said we need to make it taste good, too.”

Plant a little garden, Eat a lot of peaches, Try and find Jesus on your own.

— From “Spanish Pipedream”by John Prine

Lafreita Hutton was grading peaches by hand, lovingly transferring them from picking box to smaller piles according to size. Around her was the red-gold wealth of her family’s business — peaches by the half-bushel, by the quart, the biggest ones in little baskets of four or five by the cash register. It was 7 a.m., and the sun coming through the windows of the air-conditioned stand made liquid gold of the jars of honey on the sill. Baskets of tomatoes and yellow squash and bags of shelled pecans looked like piles of coins in a counting house.

Hutton has been helping run a peach orchard for 22 years, “and they’ve been the fastest years of my life,” she said. When they’d just started, her husband and two sons would pick peaches in the early summer mornings, then go off to jobs in Fort Worth, leaving her to sort and pack and sell what they’d pulled from the trees.

“It takes several years to learn how to pick peaches,” she said. “You can’t study on each one.”

Some fruits last well for many days after being picked. Some ship well. Some ripen better than others do off the tree or vine. But for peach farmers, the race is on from the moment their fruit is picked off the tree, and the path is narrow. “At the texture that we try to pick, they don’t last long,” Hutton said.

The distinctive taste of peaches has much to do with the balance of sugars and acids. Peaches reach their full sugar content while they are still somewhat hard; if picked past that point, they can continue ripening off the tree, as the acid content drops and the peaches get softer and juicier. California growers, Dolan said, actually have “things like paint chips,” with a certain color, that pickers hold up next to the fruit. “If it’s too green, they don’t pick it.”

(Lafreita chuckles at the idea of holding up paint chips to measure the color and ripeness. But sometimes, she said, a new worker will “pick ’em when they’re lime green, too green, and the flavor never gets to the peach. I get so riled, they have to tell me, ‘Lafreita, just go to the house.’ ” )

Texas growers selling to local markets have the luxury of giving peaches perhaps two days longer on the tree and don’t have to choose varieties that can withstand a cross-country road trip. The last few days, Parker County grower Fred Brill said, can be crucial to full flavor, because peaches gain 90 percent of their sweetness during that time.

Picked a day or two late, they may get mushy before they reach the market. Handled incorrectly, they become the peaches that so many supermarket shelves seem full of: mealy in texture, dried out, wrinkled.

Almost all growers put their peaches in a cooler as soon as they are picked, especially if it has been a hot day, “to get the field heat out of them,” as several growers explained, before the picked fruit melts from its own warmth. Then they are graded, partially de-fuzzed by brushes on the grading machines, and packed into boxes.

In commercial orchards, the fruit is kept in cold storage until the farmer gets an order for it from a grocer, Marilyn Dolan said. While growers try to hold the fruit in storage only a day, it could be there as much as two weeks, she said. Under those conditions, she said, some peaches “hold up well, some don’t.” When the fruit eventually gets shipped to the buyer, it often lands in a regional grocer’s warehouse on that end, and sits longer, before making it to the retail stores.

“Refrigeration is what damages peaches — makes them mealy,” she said. And sometimes, grocers are their own — and the growers’ — worst enemy in that regard.

Unfortunately, the “killing zone” for peaches is 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit — “the temperature at grocers’ warehouses and your refrigerator at home,” Dolan explained. Peaches picked early “will ripen and get soft and juicy,” Dolan said, unless exposed to those temperatures. Then, she said, “It will never ripen.” Growers and knowledgeable grocers keep their peaches out of that range.

“Our programs are all about trying to get retailers not to put them in the refrigerator,” she said, but “it’s difficult to get these big warehouses to do something different — especially when it’s something that doesn’t make sense to them.”

Dolan’s marketing group has tried all kinds of strategies to drive the point home. “For a while we sent people to these warehouses — we’d do an audit, and say, ‘OK, where are you keeping your peaches?’ ”

But, “They’re just big companies. Maybe the guy who ran the warehouse one year doesn’t come back. It’s just a big machine.”

Another strategy is aimed at the retailers. “We convince them to try it [not refrigerating the peaches] one summer, and inevitably they sell two or three times as many peaches.” Again, she said, the improvement usually isn’t permanent. “We tried going to the consumers and trying to educate them. But consumers don’t think that much about it.” They try to teach customers not to put still-hard peaches in the refrigerator when they get them home, but — assuming they haven’t already been ruined by grocers’ handling — to let them ripen another day or two in a brown paper bag.

Some grocers and wholesalers apparently are getting the message. Omar Pena is one of the partners in Santa Fe Produce, the company that sells fruits and vegetables all week inside the newly opened Fort Worth Rail Market. (Farmers themselves sell outside the market, at the Intermodal Transportation Center, on Saturdays.) But for most of his career, Pena has been a produce wholesaler. Most large wholesalers and those who run warehouses for grocery chains, “will have different coolers, with different temperatures” to meet the needs of various kinds of produce.

“Anything that’s tree-ripened, vine-ripened, has a tendency to last longer when it’s not refrigerated,” he said.

The San Antonio-based H-E-B grocery company, which owns the upscale Central Market stores, worked with the University of California at Davis to develop special protocols for handling and storing fruits like peaches and plums.

“We do an extra step with ripening rooms in our distribution centers, to control humidity and temperature to a tenth of a degree,” said Hugh Topper, director of produce procurement. Produce managers get pretty scientific in deciding when the peaches are ready to go to the stores, too, he said. They use something called a pentrometer to measure internal pressure — that is, how firm or soft a peach is — and a refractometer to measure the sweetness.

And indeed, a recent taste test at Fort Worth’s Central Market showed that the bin of peaches labeled “tree-ripened California” were just about the match for Parker County’s best. They were also much more expensive than the other California and Georgia peaches in the store, which were harder and not as juicy.

A customer, seeing store manager Greg Beam offering sample peach slices, joined in. It took her two bites to make a decision. Her mouth full, she nodded, pointed, and headed for the bin of tree-ripened fruit.

Central Market customers won’t find Parker County peaches in the store this year — but not because produce managers don’t want them. “As long as I’ve been in this market, customers have asked for Parker County peaches,” Beam said. Several local growers mentioned that Central Market’s buyer had been persistent — but unsuccessful — in finding peaches to buy at wholesale prices. The crop this year has been slim enough — blame last year’s drought, late freezes, hail, and finally, straight-line winds few weeks ago — that farmers are able to sell almost all they pick in roadside stands and farmers’ markets, where they get retail, not wholesale, prices.

Stores like Central Market and Roy Pope Grocery, which try to offer Parker County peaches, are still the exception, however. Most Parker County growers have given up trying to sell to grocery stores. Soon, some said, they may give up trying to sell in their hometown.

Aint nothin sweeter

than a watermelon dream

’cept sitting on the front porch

eatin’ that peach ice cream

— from “Watermelon Dream,” by Guy Clark

Gary Hutton’s hand was moving toward another Ranger peach when he stopped to listen. “I think that was a coyote,” he said. They frequently serenade him when he comes to the 25-acre patch of sandy loam the Huttons call the Kukuk (pronounced “cuckoo”) orchard, after its former owners. Wild turkeys love to nest in the orchard, he said — and coyotes like to go after the turkeys and their young.

It was in this general area that commercial peach orchards in Parker County got their start, after boll weevils and bad harvests convinced cotton farmers to find other uses for their sandy, well-drained soil and the sun-soaked slopes that let the chill of frosts flow down and away from the trees.

Lafreita Hutton says it was Jimmy, the younger of her two sons, who urged the family all those years ago to get into peach farming. But these days Jimmy spends more of his time at the Ridgmar Farmer’s Market, seeing to the retail end of the family’s business, and it’s Gary who does more of the picking, grading and packing, and supervising the seasonal work crews.

Gary worked in a bank until the family put together enough acreage to need him full-time working with the peach trees — in four different orchards — and the pecan trees and the cattle that they also run. Reaching in among the glossy, dark-green leaves, getting peach fuzz down his neck, filling and refilling the box slung on a strap across his shoulder with 25 pounds of peaches — it’s a far different life from the bank job. On a good day, he and a crew can pick 300 to 400 trees, between 7 a.m. and quitting time, which is usually no later than 1 p.m. because of the heat.

“I enjoy doing it; it’s just got its hectic times,” he said. “I like dealing with the cows, I like being outdoors.”

The number of folks who, like Gary Hutton, enjoy the outdoor work of peach-growing apparently is dwindling in Parker County. As late as 1985, according to one account, there were more than 200 peach farmers in the county. Now, grower Fred Brill said, he can count his colleagues on the fingers of both hands. That same year, the peach industry brought an estimated $6 million to $7 million to Parker County. Now that figure, according to County Extension Agent John Green, is more like $2 million. Peaches are still important to the county’s economy, Green said, “but they are not by any means the largest commodity,” being outdistanced by cattle, horses (Weatherford has become a center of the high-dollar cutting horse industry), and bedding plants.

Another factor in reducing the peach crop is urban sprawl — folks from Fort Worth and Dallas looking for a few acres in the country and willing to pay top dollar for them.

“Property is so expensive that it wouldn’t pay to put in a peach orchard now unless you already had the land,” Lafreita Hutton said. “At one time there was a whole little compound of orchards” in the Greenwood area west of Weatherford. Now, housing developments have moved in behind them and “it’s like a freeway down here.”

“If I was a young man” and someone suggested he go into peach farming, Brill said, “I’d laugh at them until they could show me whether I could make money and how much.” Last year, he said, Weatherford Super Save, pointed out as the only supermarket in Weatherford that regularly carries local peaches, “bought all my peaches. This year I don’t have them to sell” because of drought and hard freezes. Because of the very real possibility of losing an entire crop, most peach farmers have other sources of income. “If I had to depend on peaches, I’d be in a sweat.”

“You can gamble on peach-growing or you can go to Las Vegas. Your choice,” Brill said. “That’s one of the problems for the peach industry: It doesn’t look good as a business proposition — it looks good as a gamble.”

Make no mistake — Dr. Worthington, the horticulturist, said that peach farming can be “very, very lucrative.” (The Ridgmar market grossed about $450,000 in its second year and the farmer-run market in Weatherford grosses about $200,000 in a good year.) But it takes patience and other sources of income. A new farmer must wait about four years, with no money coming in, from when a new orchard is planted until it begins to bear fruit. Then comes the year-round labor of pruning, trimming, fertilizing, putting out smudge pots to keep the buds from freezing in late-winter weather, picking, and selling.

Brill said the lack of young people getting into peach farming doesn’t worry him as much, because “it’s sort of an old man’s game.” He bought his land and put in his orchard after retiring from a career as a recruiter for the aerospace industry.

With Fort Worth and Dallas just down the road, Parker County peach farmers don’t have any problem finding a market for their fruit. A market in the economic sense, that is. Finding places to sell the fruit is another matter. Some farmers have their own roadside stands. Some sell to the two public markets in Weatherford that compete across the parking lot from each other. And others take their produce to Fort Worth — to the Ridgmar market, built and owned by the Huttons and Murphys, or the smaller market on Camp Bowie West.

Wayne Murphy said many growers feel that Weatherford has done far too little to support the farmers whose crop is the focal point of the town’s biggest annual event — the Parker County Peach Festival, which brings more than $1 million and 45,000 people each year.

The city and the chamber of commerce “don’t do anything to promote” the peach growers, Murphy said. As a result, “Everybody has pretty much left Weatherford [to sell]. The market there, we tried to develop it, and they did everything against us.” At the festival last year, the booths selling actual peaches “got shoved all the way to the end” of the square on the west side, away from the biggest crowds. “We had people say, ‘We looked for you and couldn’t find you and went home.’ ”

Andrea Sutten, president of the Weatherford Chamber of Commerce, said the peach festival is an important tool for getting people to move to that city. “A lot of folks do end up falling in love with it and moving here,” she said, including one woman who came for the festival and returned to establish a bed-and-breakfast.

Sutten said the chamber does “a little” to promote the peach farmers, calling Weatherford the “Peach Capital of Texas” in their newcomer guides and promoting the produce markets. “I don’t know that there’s any threat” that the peach industry needs to be protected against, she said.

Murphy said that, years ago, the city rented its entire original public market to one individual, who sublet it to a produce company. Farmers resorted to selling from their trucks in the city-owned parking lot. Finally, Murphy said, about 15 years ago, a group of farmers got together and, with a lawyer’s help, convinced the city to let them build their own building in the parking lot. For the first 10 years, the farmers’ group got to use the building free to repay them for construction costs. But now, Murphy said, the building is leased to the highest bidder, and farmers find it hard to compete. “It’s such a fight to market your product” in Weatherford, he said. “Some people have gotten out of farming because of it.”

Brill shares the feeling that local farmers “have lost their ability to go down to market and sell” their produce in Weatherford. But he sees the farmer-run market as benefitting the Huttons and Murphys, and not an answer to the problem for all the growers. (Farmers can sublet stalls there, for a fee.) On the other hand, he said, he doesn’t think any of the parties has done anything wrong. “The city kind of put it to us in favor of [making more money off] the lease. But they’re not doing a thing I wouldn’t do if I had it. I don’t blame them.”

Weatherford City Manager Larry Patterson said the city has done plenty to support the peach farmers. When the Huttons asked for changes in the contract for farmers’ market, he said, the council agreed. The lease money, he said, is spent on maintaining and improving the market.

“We do a lot in terms of marketing the area. We do that through the chamber,” he said. “If there are some actions we can take [to help promote the peach industry], we are willing to do that. We are willing to have that conversation. I’ve never had a phone call along that line.”

As far as the continued shrinking of the peach farming industry, Patterson said, that may be inevitable due to increased urbanization. As cities grow, “you do lose a little piece of that heritage. I would hope that the industry would be a strong enough presence to continue.” Those kinds of pressures, he said, “tend to be larger than the city itself.”

When the Murphys and Huttons found the site on Highway 183, just west of Ridgmar Mall in White Settlement, dealing with that city’s government was a breath of fresh air, Wayne Murphy said.

“Now it’s a key outlet for us,” he said. “We can sell everything we grow right here now.” His family and the Huttons are planting more peach trees in order to supply the demand.

Right now, most Parker County peach farmers don’t need to sell to Fort Worth grocery stores because they can sell everything they grow for retail prices at fruit stands and at the Weatherford and Fort Worth area markets. In more productive years, they sell to stores like Roy Pope Grocery (which still hopes to buy some local peaches later in the season). But stores like Central Market want growers to carry product liability insurance (in case their peaches made someone sick), another expense. Other large chains want farmers to guarantee delivery of large amounts of fruit.

Jimmy Hutton, in shorts and a red produce apron, sat down at a table at the Ridgmar market to talk about the peach business. At the next table, a couple who just couldn’t wait pulled peaches out of the bagful they had just bought, and bit into them, paper towels at the ready. Behind Hutton, a city health inspector stood in line at the barbecue counter that has become part of the business (it even has a drive-up window). A rain shower moved in, drumming on the tin roof and sluicing down the flowers and lawn furniture that the market also sells.

Hutton said his family used to sell peaches to some of the larger grocery chains. “But they want to buy them at the same price as California peaches. I’ve sold ’em at that price, but — you’re working for free.”

His mom and dad don’t have to keep working, he said, but they feel obligated to their longtime customers. He loves seeing the trees mature, he said, and he doesn’t mind the hard work that goes with it.

At 40, Hutton may be one of the younger peach farmers in Parker County. And despite what others may think of farming, he said, “There’s a lot of excitement to it. Why would you want to quit?”

Fortunately for peach lovers, there are other farmers who feel the same way. Like Jody Worthington and Fred Brill, both past retirement age but still growing peaches. In 18 years, Brill said, his orchard “has always treated me well. It’s an awful lot of work, but it keeps me out of the bars.”

Worthington explained that he had gotten out of the peach business when he retired, but that two years ago, “the bug bit me again.” Now he has about 200 trees in Comanche County.

Worthington expects to see the peach industry west of Fort Worth grow stronger again — and the plans of Jimmy Hutton and others to plant more trees is proof of it, he said.

In Texas, he said, “peaches have always come back.” Not just because of the farmers, but because so many people love the fruit. Lafreita Hutton sees it. “We’ve had people almost fight over which box they’re going to get,” she said. It’s not the same for other produce. “Nobody runs out here to see about apples,” even when she’s had them. Beth Murphy talks about customers “almost stamping their feet” over the taste of an eaten-on-the-spot peach in high season.

A peach grower in East Texas may have gotten the highest compliment. Worthington said his friend has a peach orchard and fruit stand on Highway 80 near Terrell. A train track runs between the highway and the sales room. Two years ago, Worthington said, “he started selling ice cream with peaches, in an extra-rich blend.” The train crews have gotten to know about the place and now, “every once in a while, the engineer will stop the train and dash across for an ice cream cone.”

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