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Real Food: Peach Picking and Packing

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How do you like your peaches? In a pie? In ice cream? Or just fresh and whole, with juices dribbling down your chin? In the summertime we go through so many peaches in our house that it’s hard to choose a favorite way to eat them. And given that 70 percent of the fresh peaches and 93 percent of the fresh nectarines and plums grown in the U.S. are grown in California, they’re practically our state fruit. Feeling a little bit of Golden State pride, we decided to take a Real Food Summer road trip to learn more about the life and journey of these blushing beauties.

Approximately 90 percent of California peaches, plums, and nectarines are grown in Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties, in the heart of California’s Central Valley. That’s why a logical first choice for our peach experience was a journey down the Fresno County Fruit Trail with friends from the California Farm Water Coalition. We visited two stone fruit farms: Friesen Family Farms of Kingsburg, CA, which has its own packing facility; and Hudson Farms of Sanger, CA, which sends its fruit to a packing company.

Paula Friesen holds up a chart showing the harvest periods for all of the stone fruit varieties at her farm.

The first thing to know about peaches is that there’s no such thing as “a regular peach.” Sure, there are white peaches and yellow peaches, but California grows about 200 different varieties of peaches. At the 250-acre Friesen Family Farms, we tasted several of the varieties that were in season just that week, which included the Summer Sweet White peach, the Sweet Blaze peach, the July Flame peach, and the Summer Flame peach. (And yes, each one had a distinct taste and flavor.) Curiously, there are some varieties of stone fruit that you’ll never see in the store. For example, the farm stand at Friesen was selling an apricot called simply “Experimental Apricot.” It was a breed that wasn’t able to hold up the rigors of packing and shipping so it never made it to the market (and the apricot never got an official name).

At Friesen Family Farms, the fruit picking (all stone fruits) is all done by hand on a ladder in 100-plus degree heat and humidity, so it is a grueling operation. The packing warehouse is inside an open-air building, so there’s reprieve from the blazing sun, but still, it makes for very hot work in the middle of the summer.

After the fruit is picked in the orchard, it goes straight to the packing warehouse so it can be packed on the same day it is picked. When it arrives in the warehouse, it goes through a washing/waxing machine where each piece of fruit gets a thin, protective coat of wax (all of the fruits except apricots get “waxed”). A group of workers then grades for quality: A #1 grade fruit (top quality) keeps going down the assembly line; a #2 grade fruit (slightly bruised or otherwise imperfect) gets set aside for sales at the farm stand out front; all other rejected pieces of fruit slide down a chute into a waiting truck. The truck then dumps the fruit all along the trails; the fruit decomposes and the pits help with dust control.

The top-quality fruit then falls into a cup on the sizer. The sizer automatically weighs each piece of fruit. Then they are sorted by weight and then dropped off into the appropriate bin. At the bottom of the chute, a computer screen tells the packing worker which size of fruit and which variety is coming up. He or she can then pack the fruit in the appropriate box. The fruit is packed in boxes ranging from 5 to 25 pounds, and the workers pack as many as 5,000 to 7,000 boxes per day at the peak of the summer season (with an average of 2,000 to 4,000 per day).

If you’re preparing to buy and eat fresh peaches this summer, chances are you’ll see some Friesen Family Farms peaches. These peaches are sold to grocery stores all over the U.S. and major chains like Costco and Wal-Mart. Want to know for sure that it came from Friesen? If you are able to look at the box, it will be labeled “CA 1945.”

Liz Hudson offers up some water peach slices

Over at Hudson Family Farms, we saw even more varieties of peaches including a pale yellow heirloom variety known as a “water peach.” These peaches are meant to be eaten right away – they don’t stand up to the rigors of packing and transport – and if you taste them you’ll see why. Proprietor Liz Hudson tells us her family used to call them “sink peaches” – as in, you have to eat them over the sink to catch all of the juicy drips.

The peaches grown at the 180-acre Hudson Farms (other than the delicate water peaches) are picked and sent to Wawona Packing Company. These peaches are then frozen and then sold for products such as peach ice cream, Jamba Juice, and frozen peach pies like Mrs. Smith’s and Marie Callender’s. (Hudson Farms’ nectarines and plums are sold fresh.) So if you’ve had a peach-flavored Jamba Juice or a Marie Callender’s pie, chances are you’ve enjoyed a Hudson Farms peach.

Fresh from the oven: Liz Hudson’s peach cobbler

Want to know one of the best ways to eat a summer peach? Bake it into an old-fashioned cobbler. Liz Hudson served us some delicious fresh-baked cobbler, and she graciously shared the recipe with us:

Hudson Farms Peach Cobbler

1/4 cup plus 2 T. butter (must be butter!)

1 1/4 cups sugar, divided

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. vanilla

Dash of salt

3/4 cup milk

3 cups sliced and peeled fresh peaches

Additional sugar and cinnamon (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in a two-quart baking dish in the oven. While it is melting, combine 3/4 cup sugar, flour, baking powder and salt; add milk and vanilla and stir until mixed. Pour batter over melted butter in baking dish, but do not stir. Combine peaches and remaining 1/2 cup sugar; spoon over batter. Do not stir. Sprinkle a cinnamon and sugar mixture on top if desired. Bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes. Serves 6 to 8. Note: This recipe can be doubled or tripled for larger baking pans.

Many thanks again to Friesen Family Farms, Hudson Farms, the California Farm Water Coalition, and the Fresno Farm Bureau for an inside look at peach growing and packing. And remember that just about every peach you buy, whether it’s fresh from the supermarket or baked into a frozen peach pie, most likely spent some time basking in the California sunshine.

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7 Responses to Real Food: Peach Picking and Packing

  1. Jamie July 12, 2012 at 12:40 am #

    I would have loved to join you for this, wish I wouldn’t have been out of town =) Looks like a ton of fun… and I could really go for a peach right about now.

    • jollytomato July 12, 2012 at 7:16 am #

      Aw, thanks, Jamie! Next time!!!

  2. Jennifer K. July 12, 2012 at 10:45 am #

    We only eat “real food” in our house. My kids finally decided that they like peaches, so perhaps I can think of a way to make this gluten free for them!

  3. Laura @ Family Spice July 13, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    And it’s totally peach season! I love summer fruits and our fruit bowl is full of peaches and nectarines. Oh those poor fruit pickers, picking fruit in 100º+ weather! Great post!

  4. Kristi July 15, 2012 at 6:38 am #

    Love the blog and photos. Sorry I missed your visit – but glad to see you connected with some of our best Fruit ambassadors. Hope you had a great time on the Fresno County Fruit Trail. One of the best things about the Central Valley summers is the fresh fruit – lots of sun/heat makes for delicious juicy fruit.

    PS – Enjoying a Friesen peach right now!

    • jollytomato July 15, 2012 at 7:59 am #

      Thanks, Kristi! It was a pleasure!

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