Ripe for the picking

July 23, 1997|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,Special to the Sun

Early each morning during peach season, Alton Gallahan plucks a ripe fruit from one of the hundreds of peach trees at Cherry Hill Farm & Orchard in Clinton and takes a bite.

"I just pull it off the tree. Don't even peel it," Gallahan said.

Lynn Moore, president of Larriland Farm in Woodbine, prefers her tree-ripened peaches sliced and swimming in ice cold milk. Moore -- who eats fresh peaches all summer and home-canned peaches nearly every day for the rest of the year -- is also partial to peach daiquiris, peach ice cream, peaches-and-cream pie and peach cake.

Though some people believe the flavor of summer is watermelon, that diluted sweetness is too fleeting for purists like Moore and Gallahan.

For them the true taste of summer is found in the sticky juice of a tree-ripened peach, the syrupy liquid running down the chin and clinging to the palms as the peach eater savors each and every ambrosial bite.

The experience is even better if you've picked the peach yourself.

Only a handful of Maryland orchards -- including Larriland in Howard County, Cherry Hill in Prince George's County and Spring Valley Farm in Cecil County -- allow the public onto their property to pick and choose among the best fruit each one of their peach trees has to offer.

As recently as a decade ago, picking your own peaches was a common family outing in the semi-rural quarters of the state. Parents and children piled into the car for a quick trip to a nearby orchard, where an hour of labor -- performed mostly by the adults while the kids darted among the trees playing impromptu games of tag and pitching dried peach pits at one another -- yielded enough peaches, which frozen or canned, would carry the family through the coming winter.

Stan Dabkowski, president of the Maryland Direct Farm Market Association, said improvements in the wholesale peach market have made the state's pick-your-own peach operations almost obsolete. Unfavorable weather conditions during the past few growing seasons reduced the peach crop in the Baltimore-Washington area, thereby increasing demand for the fruit by the region's wholesalers, Dabkowski explained.

Better availability of migratory labor has helped make wholesaling peaches even more appealing, he said. Dabkowski believes professional picking crews are more efficient and take better care of the trees than the untrained public.

Topping the reasons for the demise of the pick-your-own peach operation, however, is growers' preference to keep control of the cream of their crop.

"One thing with pick-your-own anything -- peaches, apples, strawberries or anything else -- the pick-your-own clientele wants to pick the prettiest of the crop," Dabkowski said. "They want the biggest, the rosiest and the best-flavored."

In a strong market like the present, peach growers can pick their trees clean and get a good price on every grade of peach, rather than allowing pick-your-own customers to take the best fruit, leaving only the meager remains for wholesale, Dabkowski said.

Those arguments make sense to Gallahan and Moore. But flying in the face of all this unsolicited advice from their peers, both fruit growers said allowing customers to select their own peaches remains a positive experience for their farms and the picking public.

"There's a breed of customer still that likes to go into the orchard and pick their fruit," explained Moore's mother, Polly Moore, co-founder of Larriland. "We're catering to that niche market."

Gallahan, whose family has been involved in production agriculture since the Civil War, said he enjoys the nostalgia associated with peach-picking. "The children really get a kick out of it," he said, and many families have turned a trip to Cherry Hill into a summer tradition.

There is a beautiful simplicity inherent in the act of reaching up and pulling a ripe peach from its hiding place among the folds of a leafy branch. It takes no special skill. And it doesn't matter how successful you are or how much money you have, every person is equally adept.

"I like to tell people Donald Trump cannot buy a good peach unless he goes to an orchard and gets it himself," Gallahan said.

Commercially picked peaches are taken when the fruit is firm and still a bit green. The fruit ripens on its way to market, though often the peaches must still be left out for a day or so before they're suitable for eating -- and the flavor never quite matches that of peaches which have ripened on the tree, according to Gallahan.

Worrying that he might sound brash, Gallahan said allowing people onto his land to pick their own peaches is really a "privilege" of sorts. A pound of peaches at Cherry Hill costs 79 cents no matter who picks them. "We don't give any break on pick-your-own because when all is said and done, it costs us more money to run the pick-your-own operation," he said.

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