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This is what it takes to run a Hill Country peach orchard

peachcrate.JPG
Erika Howlett
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Peaches at Studebaker Farms, near Fredericksburg, Texas.

Most years, early August would be the time that peach season in the Texas Hill Country would be winding to a close.

As children return to school and summer ends, peach growers begin to see fewer visitors and fruit being picked. But for peach-lovers, an August trip to Fredericksburg is still worth your while, especially due to this year’s unique conditions.

Because of the intense drought this summer, accompanied by record-breaking temperatures, the harvest was delayed by two to three weeks. This means there are more peaches later in the summer, but many growers have had reduced volume to sell.

The weather is unpredictable, and farmers always have to be ready to adapt. Additionally, the Hill Country is growing in population which puts a strain on land and water resources. Land prices are so high that it would be very difficult for any new growers to come in, and the industry is already declining.

To some, these may sound like insurmountable challenges. For the old-timers of the peach industry, this is just part of the gig. They’ve pretty much seen it all before, and they are optimistic about the future.

Studebaker Farms, for instance, is not afraid to change things up to adapt. Experimenting and keeping up with the latest research is a key part of their operation.

“We're looking at some things they've done out of state and trying to kind of modernize the way we grow here because the land's gotten so expensive,” said Russ Studebaker.

The farm is run by Studebaker and his wife, Lori. They have two employees in the fields, and a few people that help out with sales.

“This hasn't been a lucrative year. We're not really making any money, but we're surviving,” Studebaker said.

But they’ve seen worse years than this and have even lost a whole crop before. As long as there are peaches, customers will come. Though there are many orchards, the Studebaker’s peaches are revered and they create a personal, welcoming environment.

“We have a really good, loyal customer base,” he said.

Studebaker purchased his land in 1992, and has grown peaches ever since. However, he’s actually one of the newer growers in the area, given that so many are multi-generational family businesses that have been around since the mid-20th century.

We're a smaller orchard,” Lori Studebaker said. “We determined that we wanted to be a little bit different.”

For instance, Studebaker Farms picks their peaches in flat boxes instead of large crates. These include plastic inserts that keep the peaches safe and secure. This way, they aren’t on top of each other, so they don’t bruise and one bad peach won’t affect others. This also allows the Studebakers to pick the peaches ripe and get fresh fruit right to the customer.

Their trees are planted close together and require skillful pruning. They are also using experimental rootstocks from the USDA to help maximize land.

“We see the future is that we're growing the same amount of peaches on fewer acreage,” Studebaker said.

He approaches farming scientifically and explained his craft with a studious expertise. He’s constantly learning and working on ways to do things better.

Studebaker said he doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he is serious about the quality of his peaches. If there are any complaints, which is rare, he will send customers a refund.

“Peaches are hard work. They're risky,” Studebaker said.

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The drought may be a challenge but it’s not the only weather-related threat. The late freeze in March this year caused them to lose about four different peach varieties.

For farmers, it’s necessary to change with the climate.

“Over the years, you're going to have to start changing and you kind of adapt with peaches. They used to grow varieties here that we wouldn't grow now,” Studebaker said.

With the lack of rainfall, irrigation has to see them through. Peaches grown in these dry conditions are smaller than normal, but they’re also sweeter. They don’t plant the varieties that last into September but there will still be peaches available at Studebaker Farms though mid-August.

Unlike many local growers, the Studebakers only produce peaches. They are located on the side of U.S. Route 290 directly between Fredericksburg and Stonewall. Their wooden storefront may not be as large or obvious as some of the area’s orchards, but customers know they can depend on them.

Clearly, their success depends on their ability to innovate, but also their perseverance and discipline. The farmwork goes all through the year, and they have had to work other jobs to make a living.

“Everything breaks on the weekend,” Studebaker said, smiling.

Studebaker didn’t study agriculture, but has plenty of experience. He worked on his father’s citrus farm in South Texas while growing up and has learned a lot in his 30 years of peach production.

“This stuff, you just learn,” he said. “I used to ask people questions. Now they ask us.”

There are 14 peach growers listed by the Hill Country Fruit Council. And while each operation is struggling against the weather, they’re fortunately not battling each other.

“We compete with ourselves,” Studebaker said. “That's all we worry about. We want to grow the best fruit.”

Each grower runs their operations differently. And, each grower recognizes the difficulties of the business and wants to help the industry thrive.

“I've always felt anything that I could do to support other growers or work with other growers, I definitely want to do,” said Dianne Eckhardt, of Eckhardt Orchards.

Eckhardt Orchards, located near the center of Fredericksburg, has a large supply of fresh produce and local foods. Along with their many peach products, they sell melons, goat cheese, ice cream and more. Many of their goods come from partnerships with other local businesses and Eckhardt is very grateful for community support.

“Our local patrons and customers sustain us,” she said. “They know peaches. They come and visit us multiple times each week.”

She encouraged people to head up to the Hill Country and said the peaches are sweet, high-quality and can sit out for a while without going bad.

Eckhardt’s is one of the oldest orchards in the area, with origins dating back to the 1920s. Over the years, it’s been passed through generations.

Eckhardt says they have about 6-8 workers at any time, and that picking small peaches requires more labor.

“The last several years we've been working to put any new trees that we plant on drip irrigation,” she said. “And I cannot tell you the relief I've had this year, knowing that the trees are actually getting a little bit of moisture. It certainly does not replace rainfall.”

They keep up with new developments in agricultural research as well. And they’ve got to adapt, too, including by planting different varieties that will resist changing temperatures.

“We grow about 22 different varieties to kind of diversify that risk a little bit,” she said.

Katelyn Eames helps to run another multi-generational farm, at Burg’s Corner.

“My dad's in his 70s. And (this is the) first year he's been concerned about his trees dying,” Eames said about this season.

She said that the heat has deterred some visitors and they’ve focused on explaining the situation to customers, so they understand why peaches are smaller and coming in later. Eames acknowledges the threats to crops, but is enthusiastic about this year’s produce and the future.

“You have to be optimistic to be a farmer,” she said.

Indeed, growing peaches requires a certain character.

“It's not the most glamorous job,” Eckhardt said. “It's a very rewarding job, but it takes a special person that enjoys that solitude of working every day on a farm.”

“It's seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours per day to get everything done,” she added.

The Studebakers have instilled this work ethic into their three sons, who aren’t currently farming, but have applied these lessons to their lives.

“You have to be smart enough to do it, but not smart enough to quit,” Studebaker said.

“They learn that no matter how hard you work, you can lose it all,” he continued. “That’s the one thing you learn from this is perseverance.”

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Erika Howlett is the 2022 Summer Arts Intern at Texas Public Radio. She assists with community engagement and produces articles on local arts and culture for TPR’s website.