As summer begins, so will annual pilgrimages to roadside stands and farmers markets where popular varieties of Texas’ succulent freestone peaches arrive in successive waves through Labor Day. Those peaches set a national standard for sweet-ness, and—here’s the really good news—they are mostly reserved for Texans.
The Texas census ﬁrst mentioned peaches as a commercial crop in 1890, and by 1910, the state’s peach production peaked with 10 million trees. Today’s current tree count is a tenth of that—largely due to inconsistent weather cycles—meaning there’s not a steady enough supply for commercial export outside the state.
“It’s darn hard work,” says Jim Kamas, a Texas A&M associate professor who co-authored a primer on growing Texas peaches. “It can’t be mechanized because it is a perishable commodity.” As a result, the fruit tends to go from tree to retail in 24 hours—the roadside stand model.
Thanks to irrigation and modern horticulture, peaches can be grown from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso and even in the Panhandle, but the most popular samples are found in North, East, and Central Texas, which beneﬁt from more reliable climates and soils ideal for growing. In early June, the ﬁrst of the freestones—the Harvester—appears, ﬁnishing by early September with Parade, Fairtime, and the plump Flameprince, a relative newcomer to the Texas peach pantheon.
Last summer, I set out in my Jeep Cherokee to navigate what I call the “Texas Peach Triangle” to ﬁnd the best of the best. The journey starts with Stonewall and Fredericksburg along US 290, where growers’ outlets are interspersed with Hill Country vineyards. Up north, Weatherford, which the State Legislature designated as the Peach Capital of Texas in 1991, hosts up to 55,000 peach fans at the annual Parker County Peach Festival in July. Between Dallas and Houston sits the third wedge of my triangle, the vast operations of Cooper Farms in Fairﬁeld, which opens pop-up stalls in other Central Texas communities in good years.
Using these coordinates, roadtrippers will meet families spanning three generations who tend historic orchards near their stores. Sample their peach preserves, peach butter, peach salsa, peach cider, and even peach wine. Graze on peach turnovers, peach cobbler, peach fried pies, and peach ice cream. And, yes, buy a peck or two for your neighbors and your freezer.
“There is little comparison between fresh peaches and the metro grocery store peaches,” says Kay Andrews of Austin, an annual visitor to the Burg’s Corner stand near Stonewall. “I made a cobbler with good fresh peaches, and it is simply the best dessert you can imagine. Add a little Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla and—wow. No words.”
It’s late June, and Stonewall’s annual Peach JAMboree has already kicked off what will be an abundant local crop.
Trays of Harvester peaches line tabletops at Vogel Orchard and Burg’s Corner. Soon, larger Majestics, Red Globes, Dixilands, and venerable Lorings will follow, each variety with its own disciples.
A handwritten sign next to the peaches at Burg’s Corner admonishes: “Please don’t pinch us. It hurts our peelings.” The solution: Buy a basket of the tawny beauties and consume one, skin and all. Just ask for a napkin.
Jimmy Duecker, the patriarch of Burg’s Corner, left college in 1969 to work the family orchards when his father died unexpectedly. “I had no reservations what I had to do,” he recalls. (He returned to complete his bachelor’s degree in 1972). Now, daughters Kristen Restani and Katelyn Duecker manage the US 290 stand. “Families—so far, that’s the savior of the peach business,” says Jimmy, whose wife, Emily Duecker, also stays involved.
Growing up near the Dueckers, Jamey Vogel remembers he “couldn’t wait to get away from this, but in the back of my mind, maybe I could get back if I was away for a while.” Now, he and his wife, Terri Vogel, look to their children as the eventual caretakers of Vogel Orchard’s 7,000 trees; his parents, George and Nelda, planted the ﬁrst ones in 1953. George worked the farm until he died this March—he sorted 2018’s bountiful peach harvest from his wheelchair.
Hye Market, a nearby historic destination for diners and imbibers, uses Vogel peaches in chef Matt Church’s fermented peach salsa, which he spreads on ciabatta for his pork belly sandwiches. In Fredericksburg, the Cabernet Grill lists Vogel by name for its peach crisp. When the year’s crop is good, peach ice cream at Clear River Ice Cream and Bakery comes from Burg’s Corner, which offers the treat at its stand as well.
At least three venues feature the bounty of Hutton Fruit Farms’ 4,500 trees—its stand west of Weatherford, down-town Weatherford’s open-air farmers market operated by the Hutton family, and the Malt Shop, a 1950s-era drive-in on the old highway to Fort Worth. Gary Hutton, orchard co-owner with brother Jimmy, favors the Malt Shop’s peach milkshake.
The Hutton stand is down a shady country road off US 180, footsteps away from the orchards. By early July, word has spread about the season’s success, with cars, SUVs, and pickups navigating the stand’s one-lane driveway. Inside, ripened peaches share shelves with fresh vegetables, canned peach products, and jars of honey.
Hutton escorts a visitor in a golf cart by trees loaded with freestones. “I’m going to add another 15 acres,” he says. “I’ve got to keep my son and nephew busy.”
B & G’s Garden near the tiny community of Poolville functions on a much smaller scale—200 trees of Harvester, Ranger, Bounty, Lor-ing, and Red Globe among its 10-acre cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. Though there is no stand, visitors are welcome to come out to the farm. “We sell right out of the cooler,” master gardener Ben Walker says.
Walker, a former truck driver, and part-ner Greg Johnson also supply their peaches to Fort Worth outlets like the Cowtown Farmers Market and restaurants like Ellerbe Fine Foods. No zigzagging through rural Parker County is required.
What’s Ben’s favorite peach? “When I get asked that question, I say ‘do you have children? Which one do you love the most?’”
Freestone County is home to Cooper Farms, one of Texas’ most reliable suppliers of elegant freestone peaches—the names of the peach variety and the county being a quirky coincidence. Carved out of Limestone County in 1850, Freestone County was named because of the quality of its soils. Mass-scale peach production would come more than a century later, with such soils being critical to peach production.
Cooper Farms Country Store on Interstate 45 sells specialties like cook Carl Govan’s Peach Bread and, with a bumper crop, thousands of bushels of tree-ripened peaches from its 300-acre orchards elsewhere in Freestone County. Though Cooper Farms delivers peaches to grocers if there is a surplus, co-owner Elizabeth Johnson says “50 percent of our trafﬁ c is roadside,” a throwback to her parents’ ﬁrst marketing efforts.
Her parents—Tim and Kathy Cooper, now retired—built the peach-centric empire near Fairﬁeld over the past quarter-century. Elizabeth and her high school sweetheart, Brady Johnson, attended Texas A&M to hone their agriculture and business skills, and now A&M uses Cooper’s operations for research into potential new peach varieties.
“We have lots of generational customers,” Elizabeth says. “When you were younger, your parents would stop by the side of the road and buy peaches. Then you would make a pie with grandma. People would call every year. Now their kids are calling.”
Watching out-of-towners milling around the Country Store, she says, “I would drive an hour for a really good steak, so I guess they would drive an hour for good peaches.”
STONEWALL PEACH JAMBOREE
This weekend celebration is in its 58th year and includes a parade, crowning of the Peach Queen, rodeo, concerts, dances, a “washer-pitchin’” tournament, peach-eating and pit-spitting contests, and a peach grower competition—as well as baking, salsa, and preserve cookoffs.
PARKER COUNTY PEACH FESTIVAL
Downtown Weatherford kicks up its heels in honor of the region’s peach farming history for the 35th year. Embark on the Peach Pedal bike ride, take home a title at the food competition (categories include ice cream, preserves, cakes, and appetizers), listen to live music, or browse more than 200 arts and craft vendors and activity booths in between sampling all manner of peachy treats.
DE LEON PEACH AND MELON FESTIVAL
Peach dessert and fruit competitions, 4-H bake-offs, and even a melon and cake auction are the sweet attractions at this annual late-summer event, now in its 105th year. There’s also a classic car show, a parade (above), tractor pulls, and live music.
Picking the Perfect Peach
Look at the color. The skin color variations depend upon the variety, but for peaches with partially yellow exteriors, the best indication of ripeness is a deep-gold hue on the “shoulders” of the fruit, at the stem end. For varieties with solid red skin, look for a darker hue at the shoulders; white-ﬂeshed peaches will have deep-pink coloration.
A ripe peach should have a bit of give when touched (careful; you don’t want to bruise it), but you don’t want it to be soft unless you’re planning to make jam. Peaches don’t technically ripen after harvest; that is, they won’t continue to develop sugar content. They’ll soften up if placed in a paper bag or bowl, but the sweetness depends upon the variety, how long they’re left on the tree, weather conditions during the ripening process, and terroir (the environment in which they’re grown). Taste is always the best indicator, so ask if you can have a sample if there aren’t any readily available.
If you’re picking the fruit yourself, they should give fairly easily on the branch; if you have to tug, they’re not ready. Use a basket or box for harvest, to avoid bruising or crushing.
Warm and Fuzzies
Freestone peaches—varieties where the ﬂesh doesn’t “cling” to the pit—are for the most part, all-purpose. White peaches are less common and more delicate than yellow varieties; they’re best eaten fresh or used for desserts (think tarts or ice cream) the day of purchase.
Look for these Texas-grown beauties (regional availability varies) at your local farmers market, farm stand, or store:
BOUNTY: Sizeable and ﬁrm with good texture; use for grilling, poaching, or for applications that require slices.
FLAMEPRINCE: Late ripening, extending the Texas freestone season well into August. Sweet and tart medium to large fruit.
DIXILAND: This sweet, juicy variety is one of Texas’ most be-loved. Fresh or preserves.
LORING: Tied with Dixiland for the region’s favorite, with ﬁrm, “melting” ﬂesh. Fresh or with ice cream, please.
HARVESTER: Grown throughout Texas; semi-freestone with medium texture and excellent ﬂavor and balance. Fresh, preserves, with ice cream, or for baking and cooking.
RED GLOBE: Holds up well for baking and canning.