The coronavirus pandemic might just be a boost to this year’s Hill Country peach season.
After months of shelter-in-place orders, the state is starting to reopen just as the first peaches of the year hit the roadside stands on U.S. 290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg, an area once known only for peaches and the LBJ Ranch.
Now that stretch of highway is home to more than 50 wineries, distilleries and tasting rooms, far outnumbering the peach orchards that are part of an agritourism industry that started nearly 100 years ago.
Jamey Vogel’s parents planted the first peach trees at Vogel Orchard in 1953 and opened a roadside stand in 1972. Vogel and his wife, Terri, took over the 65-acre orchard in 1998.
Last week, the Vogels started selling the first peaches of the season: Regal, Spring Gold, June Gold and Carored. "It’s not going to be a great big crop this year like last year, but it's a decent crop," he said.
Fredericksburg-area orchards will be selling peaches into August and some into September, but the peak will be in mid-July, when some of the large freestone varieties, including Loring and Dixieland, are ready. The early season peaches are typically clingstone, which means the flesh of the fruit sticks to the pit.
Vogel said he’s been concerned about the recent dip in tourism in the area, which is what brings a lot of sales to people who might be visiting primarily for wine or spirits, but he said that decrease has been offset by regular customers who come specifically to buy peaches.
"Folks are really passionate about peaches," he said, and the stay-at-home orders have only amplified that excitement. "They’ve been cooped up. They can't wait to come out."
Lindsey Jenschke, who is married to third-generation peach farmer Barrett Jenschke, said they have also noticed an increase in customers who are eager to get out of the house.
"People are just anxious and ready to get out and do something, something they can do outside or with the kids," she said. "Our customers usually wait for school to be out, and then they plan their first summer outing," but the farm stand’s opening weekend last weekend was busier than she expected.
Jenschke Orchard, whose 50-acre peach orchard started in 1961, offers a number of pick-your-own crops, including strawberries, which just finished, and blackberries, which are just starting. Pick-your-own peaches won’t be ready until June, but they have already picked peaches for sale now.
Their crop is also looking good so far this year, Jenschke said, but she’s expecting a slowdown later in the season.
Vogel said this year’s crop, though smaller than last year’s, was probably saved by a colder, wetter February, which gave the trees some chill hours that they didn’t get in January, when it was warmer and drier.
His harvesting staff picks the peaches as close to ripeness as possible, and as the summer goes on, more varieties of peaches will ripen. Vogel hires about a dozen seasonal workers to staff the roadside stand, many of whom are local high school and college-aged students.
Like many roadside stands along the stretch of U.S. 290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg, Vogel and Jenschke orchards aren’t requiring customers to wear a mask, but many are choosing to do so. Employees are wearing masks and making sure that customers maintain social distancing.
To further minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission, Jenschke said, hand sanitizer is available for customers and the doors are open so no one has to touch a door handle.
Vogel said customers are being asked not to touch the peaches. "People like to stick their hands on them and feel them, and we try to be respectful of that, but with the situation, we're trying to limit or cut that out."
If customers want to stay in their car, Vogel said, curbside orders will be happily fulfilled, and this is also the first year that customers can order peaches online to have them shipped to wherever they are in the U.S.
For a list of Hill Country peach stands, go to texaspeaches.com.