Peachy keen

Pick-your-own event draws loyal harvesters to University Farm

Cheryl and Vance Moulton hunt for just the right fruit.

Cheryl and Vance Moulton hunt for just the right fruit.

Photo by Josh Cozine

Plan ahead:
For information on “U-Pick Peaches” events, call the Peach Hotline at 898-4989.

A seemingly unending procession of vehicles pulled into the Chico State University Farm’s 3-acre peach parcel. Booths with buckets, scales and cash registers awaited the crowd at the side of the road. Drivers parked opposite, ready to get their peach-pick fix.

Joe Garcia, a crop technician at University Farm, tended to one of the booths last Thursday morning (Aug. 9). Garcia was back for the seventh straight year at the annual “U-Pick Peaches” event, which he participated in first as a student, later as faculty. Every bit dressed as someone at home on the farm—plaid shirt tucked into his Levi’s, a baseball cap with the College of Agriculture logo shielding his face from the sun—Garcia was weighing and selling peaches grown from some of the trees he had helped plant as a student.

The event always has been first-come, first-to-pick—and at $1.50 a pound for fresh just-off-the-branch peaches, people can’t seem to get enough. It also helps that all proceeds go directly back to the farm, which operates as a “living laboratory,” totaling 800 acres of orchards and rangeland for agriculture students and programs at Chico State.

Stepping away from the bustling booth, leaving it in the hands of University Farm student employees, he headed a ways into the orchard where he could speak without shouting over the crowd.

“It’s cool to see them this tall,” he said, gesturing to the trees all around and then crouching down, holding his hand a few feet off the ground, to show how small they had been as saplings when he had helped plant many of them six years ago.

“It’s [also] exciting to see the enthusiasm of so many people every year,” Garcia said, before noting the lengthening lines of excited visitors with buckets and wagons full of peaches that had started to form at the payment booths—prompting him to leave the trees and head back to help sort them out.

Diane Whitcomb was one such enthusiastic visitor, and one of the first to check out. With three heaping bucketfuls of peaches, totaling 26 pounds, she walked slightly off balance while carrying her large haul by hand back across the street to where she had parked.

Whitcomb said she starts watching for the event in early June, anticipating the opportunity to stock up for all conceivable uses.

“I eat some, and freeze some for later,” she said, “I make pies and cobblers and jams. Anything.

“If it’ll take a peach, I’ll make it!” she finished with a laugh and loaded the peaches into her trunk.

Deeper down the rows of trees, the orchard buzzed with more enthusiastic visitors. Cheryl and Vance Moulton, a Paradise couple married 43 years, wheeled a wagon saddled with seven buckets—all but one already filled—toward the road and check-out booths, still searching for peaches to fill their final bucket.

“We come every year; we usually get about 10 buckets,” Cheryl said as she reached overhead, plucking a peach from the higher branches of a tree and depositing it gently into the last bucket.

“We freeze ’em and have peaches all winter,” Vance said, barely visible through the leaves of the tree he’d moved deep into, looking for just the right fruits.

“We donate a lot of them, too,” Cheryl added, mentioning how the two look for local food banks that take them as donations.

“Some people can’t get this kind of food,” she said, mentioning disabled people especially. “It feels great to give to people who can’t come out themselves.”

Filling their final bucket, the couple headed to the check-out booths, wheeling the wagon while trying in vain to avoid dragging it through fallen peaches, many which had been stomped underfoot already, permeating the air with their sweet scent.

The “U-Pick Peaches” event is one of the most popular fundraisers for the University Farm, according to Jeff Boles, farm supervisor of the crops and orchards unit—and it has only been getting more popular each of the seven years he’s been involved. (More than $20,000 was raised this season, according to early estimates.)

“It used to be 1 acre, and we’d be open for three weeks,” Boles said. “Now it’s 2 1/2 acres and we’ll be done in about five days … or until supplies run out,” he said that morning, emphasizing the last point. Turns out, this year’s supplies ran out by the end of the first day of what was expected to be a few days’ worth of picking.

Another half-acre, he said, already has been planted for future harvests.

The farm grows three varieties—Hale, Fay Elberta and O’Henry—which ripen at different times. People plucked each type of peach at U-Pick.

Back at the booths, Garcia was able to shed some light on this year’s crop level.

“Last year the branches were almost touching the ground they were so full,” he said. This year, it’s a bit less.”

He also noted that it seemed like this year more people than ever showed up for the first day.

“Lot’s of things can affect it,” Garcia said, but added that “the heat wave this year at the end of the season” was probably the biggest factor.