With more than a million peach trees spread across the state producing in excess of one million bushels a year, peach production in Texas has become a significant specialty crop for many growers. But the temperamental nature of the delicate fruit and extensive sensitivity to climate makes peach production a risky proposition.
But Gary Marburger’s orchard just west of Fredericksburg is proof that the right combination of good soil, ample water, favorable weather, and hard work can make for a profitable operation for a determined grower. While still early in the growing season, the prospect for success this year looks promising.
“Several things have fallen into place so far this year. While January was an exceptionally warm month for us, a cool November and December provided us with enough chilling weather to break dormancy and induce a normal bloom,” Marburger says. “Combined with good winter rains, we are hopeful this will be a good peach year.”
Peaches have a chilling requirement of a certain number of hours of winter temperatures between 32 degrees to 45 degrees Fahrenheit each year to break dormancy and induce normal bloom and vegetative growth. If varieties have a chilling requirement that is too low, the probability is higher that they will bloom early and be more vulnerable to frost. If the chilling requirement is too high, they may be very slow to break dormancy and abort fruit. Marburger says early winter chilling was just right to satisfy the requirements of his varieties.
Marburger Orchard is largely a pick-your-own farm-to-consumer operation servicing the San Antonio and Austin markets. Any given weekend during harvest season, thousands of customers travel the narrow back roads of Gillespie County to locate what many call the freshest fruit and vegetables in Texas. Marburger also grows strawberries, blackberries and vegetables in season, but his Hill Country peaches, sweet and succulent to the most discriminating taste, are his featured product.
Tree ripe and ready to eat
“We don’t sell our peaches commercially,” he says.” For one thing, tree ripe peaches have a short shelf life.”
It is the fresh and tree ripe aspects of his pick-your-own orchard that Marburger credits for his success.
“We’ve been growing peaches since the late 70s and have been growing our customer base since then as well. Customers seem to enjoy walking through the orchard and picking fruit that looks the best to them.”
Marburger’s crew is currently busy thinning small, under developed fruit from the peach trees, a process necessary to ensure maximum yield and quality of the crop. He says that task is being performed earlier this year, largely because of early cool nights in the fall and because of unexpected winter rainfall.
“We are ahead of our normal growing schedule. It looks like we might see our first harvest of early peach varieties by May 10 provided we don’t see hail and can still get water on the crop. That’s about as early as I ever remember,” he said.
Gillespie County (Fredericksburg and Stonewall) leads the state’s production of peaches with nearly 40 percent of the total crop. Marburger says from what he’s heard, most orchards across the area are reporting similar conditions—healthy trees and early fruit.
Texas Agriculture Extension horticulturist Larry Stein says most orchards statewide are also reporting fair to good conditions in spite of last year’s drought. He says the drought caused the loss of some trees last year, but overall the industry “looks to be in good shape” after beneficial winter rain and an early start to the growing season.
“We are seeing some double and triple sets on trees because of the warm winter, so thinning is going to be necessary to reduce the weight on trees and to ensure a healthy harvest. Most orchards in Texas are irrigated and that will help even if things dry out over the coming months, and even dryland orchards have some good soils with a clay base that makes them more drought resistant than many other crops. I think we are off to a good start to the season,” Stein reports.
On Marburger’s orchard strawberries, another successful crop for the farm, have reached peak season and have been productive this year. And they are still producing well. Blackberries, which are also early, should be ripe in about two weeks, he says.
“So far it has shaped up to be a good year for us. We also grow select vegetables and those should be available in late May and June. We remain hopeful it will be a good year for everything we grow, but only time will tell.”