University Farm’s ‘Peach King’ slings his wares
The annual peach sale winds down after a difficult growing year
As the morning sun crept over the Sierra Nevada, awakening the Chico countryside, Kevin Renker climbed up an old metal ladder to inspect the blushing fruit he’d been keeping watchful eyes on all year. His careful hands moved swiftly through the deep-green branches, plucking only the ripest peaches among the heavy, drooping clusters of fruit.
Renker looked out over his acre of peach trees at Chico State’s University Farm—an acre that produced around 22,000 pounds of peaches last year.
Since then, he’s been regarded around the farm as the “Peach King,” because last year was the first time the farm sold that many peaches.
“It just kind of stuck,” the crop technician said. “Everybody just calls me the ‘Peach King.’ ”
The farm began selling its peaches last week and plans to end sales next Friday (Sept. 9). But because of a thinner crop, Renker said they’ll be lucky to break $10,000 this year—less than half the take from last season.
The peach sales have been among the top five producers on the school farm for some time now, and at $1 per pound last year’s earnings were unheard of.
“For one acre, $22,000 is pretty darn good,” Renker said. “You can’t beat it.”
The 29-year-old originally hails from the Lake County town of Kelseyville, where his family has grown peaches for years. He’s been at the University Farm for three years; however, the peaches are just a seasonal side project for him.
Renker spends most of his time in the crops portion of the 800-acre farm, which currently includes corn, sunflowers, squash, safflowers and alfalfa, but he drops in throughout the year to pay his peach trees a visit. The orchard requires some seasonal maintenance, such as spraying for pests and diseases, pruning and mowing the weeds that grow between the think, narrow tree rows.
The foul weather earlier this spring did some damage on this year’s harvest, Renker said. “The orchard was blooming during the rain, so we didn’t have a great set throughout the trees,” he said.
However, of the five varieties of trees located in the two half-acre peach orchards on the farm, the Fay Elbertas currently have some of the plumpest, juiciest fruit the farm employees have seen.
While the rain, wind and hail knocked off a good portion of the potential yield, with less fruit to maintain the trees put more energy into the surviving peaches, making them even bigger and sweeter.
Renker and his student workers kept watering the trees to make their fruit bigger. Then they cut back on the water to let them produce more sugars and ripen. That’s how the peaches get so sweet and succulent. In fact, this year’s smaller crop has produced some of the farm’s biggest peaches. One of the fruits they picked weighed a pound and a half, and was bigger than a softball.
The University Farm decided to sell its peaches at the front of the farm this year instead of holding the traditional “U-Pick” sales. Renker decided this would be best because the peaches have been ripening a lot slower than in previous years.
The U-Pick peach sale has been a local tradition for more than a decade now, and adults who have been picking their own peaches since they were 10 years old are now bringing their own children to the event.
The farm’s current acre of peaches is about 10 years old—peach trees have a general life span of between 15 to 20 years, and three to five of those early years are spent free of fruit.
This winter the farm will plant another acre and a half of about four different varieties of peaches, so around the time the current peach orchard stops yielding, the next orchard will be ready to produce.
The earnings from peach sales pay for all of the bills that the orchard accrues over the year—equal to about $4,000—and the rest is profit for the farm. But it’s really not about the money, Renker said—even last year’s stellar sales accounted for only 1 percent to 2 percent of the farm’s earnings. It’s more about getting the community out to the farm and involved in their food and agriculture.
Not offering the pick-yourself option hasn’t suppressed the demand for local peaches: The farm’s front office has been receiving calls from eager customers asking about the peaches since June.
“We had a gentleman from Almanor come in and buy 200 pounds of peaches, just to take back up there and sell back to friends,” Renker said.
The peaches are so sweet that even local dental hygienist Janet Cheatham can’t resist—she stocks up on them every year.
“We are always watching the paper religiously during the summertime, looking for the ad to come out because we want to be first in line to pick the good peaches off the trees,” she said just after purchasing several pounds of the flavorful fruits.
She usually freezes about 20 pounds of peaches to have a stockpile during the winter.
“They taste fresh right out of the freezer,” she said. “They’re great peaches; they’re big, beautiful, and juicy. The best.”