Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Arkansas Peach - Johnson County's Pride and Joy.

The Johnson County Peach Festival is just days away. It's a great time to head up to Clarksville and its surrounds and pick your fill.  Let's look at the history of the Arkansas peach and where to pick your own.

There’s nothing quite like a fresh, dripping bite of a peach in the middle of summer.  While you can acquire them at the store or pick them up at the farmer’s market, there’s nothing quite like picking one straight off a tree.

But how did the peach come to Arkansas?  They weren’t cultivated here until after the Civil War.  As farmers looked to diversify crops to avoid the treacheries of a single crop economy, orchards popped up all over central and western Arkansas and along Crowley’s Ridge.  These peaches were juicy but they didn’t have much shelf life, so any fruit that went to market further out than a county or so tended to go to mush.

The introduction of the Elberta peach, cultivated by Samuel Rumph of Georgia (and named for his wife) in 1879 made the fruit more viable as a commodity. His yellow-fleshed orb was firmer and ripened more slowly than other varieties, allowing pecks and bushels to be shipped
away from the immediate area. The introduction of refrigerated rail shipping expanded the market, and peach farming took firm hold.

In Johnson County, peaches have been big business for over a century. Johnson Taylor
and James Tolbert began growing Elberta peaches in 1893, and others followed suit. In 1897, the Missouri Pacific Railroad partnered with the area’s peach farmers, and soon those peaches were dispersed over several states. Ten boxcar loads of peaches left the western Arkansas county each year by 1901… and a couple hundred thousand bushels were produced throughout the state by the 1910s. Though disasters would take their toll in the 1950s and other states such as Texas and California would start their own orchards, the peach is still recognized as an Arkansas favorite.

The Morgan family has been working with peaches for five generations at Peach Pickin’ Paradise, just outside of Lamar.  The orchard there has been carefully managed over the years to produce 20 varieties, some which mature early, others late, to ensure there are peaches to pick throughout the season.  From the first of July to the end of August, the orchard is open for folks to come in and pick.

We made the trek up this past summer and went in the afternoon on what felt like one of the hottest days of the year.  When you arrive, you head to the big pavilion at the top of the hill, where you’re outfitted with peach picking buckets and a map, showing where different varieties are available.  The folks working the stand will circle which types of peaches are ripe, and then off you go.  Yes, it’s a dirt road to get to where you need to pick, but don’t worry – the Morgans have made sure you can get there in a regular car.

And then you pick.  We started off on one aisle of orchard trees that had already had a goodly number of pickers who had already tucked into the White Nectar variety we were craving.  There weren’t a whole lot of peaches left in the row, but there were enough to get a few handfuls.

We ended up driving down several more lanes until we got to an area where Biscoe and Winblo peaches were ready to go, and that’s where we filled our baskets.  Hunter, who had never picked peaches before, quickly became an old pro, though I believe she just as well ate as many as she put in the basket!

After we managed to get a basketful, we headed back to the pavilion, where our peaches were weighed and bagged for us to take home.  A dozen or so were consumed in the following day, and a few went sliced on top of ice cream, but most of them went into an incredible peach jelly Grav made for us that gave us that wonderful flavor to enjoy all through the cooler months.

Peach Pickin’ Paradise in Lamar has a Facebook page.  There are several other orchards that offer peaches each year, including Collins Orchard in Conway (now closed), Twin Oaks Orchard in Alma, and Suzanne’s Fruit Farm in Hampton.

Check out some of these great peach creations across Arkansas:

Peach fried pie at Olde Tyme Hamburgers in Texarkana

Peach cobbler at Stubby's BBQ in Hot Springs

Peach coconut cheesecake pie at Katherine's Cafe Amore in Eureka Springs

Peach fried pie from Letha's Pies

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