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Peaches and sunshine — Willow Creek summer, in fruit form

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Jacques Neukom doesn’t sleep well when there’s thunder and lightning over the mountains. Not in the summer, anyway, when the peach trees in his orchard are laden with sweet, juicy, luscious gems so ripe they would drop from the trees on their own if no one picked them.

And he wasn’t exactly having the relaxed, sunny summer afternoon lunch we’d planned at his place in Willow Creek. Gentle drops of rain were falling as we scooped up gobs of a very delicious, very organic guacamole with corn chips, and sipped wine from jam jars (a fine Vinatura red, also organic). It was short of a full-on shower, but enough to change the topic of conversation.

While rain does not affect green peaches, it can spell disaster when the fruit is ripe. The rainwater wells in the indentation where the stem attaches the fruit to the tree. When it flows out and down the crease in the peach, it leaches out color and a yellow line develops.

“Then the second day the line becomes indented,” Jacques explained. “On the third day the rot starts.”

There was talk by some on his small crew of rushing off for a quick pick, but as suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped. So instead of dashing to the orchard we ate butter lettuce and pasta salads, then dove into a big bowl of sliced peaches Jacques’ wife Amy had been peeling when we arrived. Suffice to say, the peaches were delicious, the perfect prelude for a tour of the orchard.

The air had that fresh-rain-on-raw-earth smell as we headed into the original orchard, 81 trees on one acre planted by former timberman Dave Chezem. Jacques figures the orchard is “perfectly situated ... on a knoll, so the air flow is fabulous.”

“Chezem kind of retired to Willow Creek and raised alfalfa and peaches,” Jacques said. “He’d share peaches with his friends and family.”

Jacques has added considerably to the collection of older peach trees, which range in age from 30-40 years. (“Some are older than I am,” he noted.) At this point he has over 700 peach trees in three main varieties — Redhaven, Suncrest and Elberta, each type baring fruit at different times.

“And down the road we have 300 apples in different varieties, then we have 60 Asian pears, 30 pluots and 10 apriums,” said Jacques, explaining that pluots and apriums are two different apricot/plum crosses. But to the casual observer the aprium looks and tastes just like an apricot. “The difference is the aprium doesn’t get the diseases the apricots get,” said Jacques, “so I’m going to let my apricots die. They really just want to die.”

Since all produce grown on Neukom Family Farms is organic, susceptibility to disease is a constant concern. As we made our way through the orchard he pointed out a new peach variety he’s planted that he may be forced to remove since it’s infected with a bacterial canker that’s almost impossible to fight using organic methods.

He showed off a new variety called Springcrest with fruit that’s dark red, almost purple in color, even though it’s not yet ripe. That’s the appeal, said Jacques.

“What the industry is going for now is coloring up as soon as possible so you can pick them green and they’ll already have a blush on them,” he said. “With the old-fashioned varieties the last thing they do is color up.” (If picked while green, the old-fashioned varieties will turn yellow, but never get the desired peach blush.)

That said, the color of the Springcrest fruit is not why he planted the trees. He’s thinking timing. His hope is that they will produce fruit at an in-between time, after his earliest variety is done and before the next is ready for market.

“What happens is, you bring peaches to market and get everyone into a frenzy, but the next week you have no peaches for a week or two,” he said. “I don’t believe in refrigerating them. People want a fresh-picked tree-ripened peach and that’s what I want to give them.”

Jacques and Amy currently sell 100 percent of their peaches retail at the Farmers’ Market. (They do three a week.) There are pros and cons to that approach. Since the delicate peaches go straight from tree to box to market to customer, excess handling is minimized. Wholesale peaches have to be picked at least a little bit green, otherwise bruises can render them unsaleable.

Then there’s the price he gets. By its very nature, wholesale has to be lower. “I realized if I can’t sell it for retail, it’s really not worth the ground it’s on,” he said.

Not that he hasn’t thought about wholesaling. When he ramped up his operation by planting 600 trees he figured he’d have extras to sell to the Co-op. He found that a grower from the Shasta area has that account locked up. “He can supply them with 280 lugs a week. I can’t touch him; I could never plant enough to do that. So I figured I’ll fulfill the dream another way, by finding something different that’s new and interesting.”

Enter the donut peach, a flat variety from China that’s relatively new on the American market. The Shasta grower doesn’t have them, so it may prove Jacques’ entry to the Co-op.

At this point he figures he’s growing all the trees he can without expanding to a year-round crew. The off-season is spent tending to the trees on a tight schedule. “I have to prune a certain number of trees per day all winter,” he said. “What that turns into is, come February, I have to do 25 trees a day, and my arms are starting to hurt, but it’s ‘Let’s go,’ even when it’s snowing.”

Over the 13 years he’s been farming the land and working the orchard he’s learned that everything from selection of variety to spacing affects the yield and the health of the trees.

The trees are pruned for productivity, but also to keep the peaches at the right height for an eight-foot ladder. “You have to be able to carry a ladder in one hand and a 10-pound flat in the other.”

How many of those 10-pound flats will he fill this season? He’s not saying. “I would tell anybody my varieties or show anybody how to prune a tree. We need more peach growers in Humboldt County, but there are some things you just don’t talk about.

“I don’t own this land but I can make a good living off it because of peaches, because of sugar snap peas and cherry tomatoes. Then there’s stuff that I just love to grow, like the Wallas (Walla Walla onions). I’m not sure that they make me any money — there’s a lot of hand weeding involved, a lot of labor, and if a rain storm comes in mid-August they all sprout — but I still love growing them. Same with potatoes. Paul Giuntoli grows such beautiful potatoes, why should I? But they’re fun to grow.”

My visit to the Neukoms’ farm took place just about two weeks ago. The Saturday after, Jacques and Amy had one of their best days ever at the Arcata Farmers’ Market. By 11 a.m., they sold all the 44 flats of peaches they’d brought, along with piles of Wallas and other assorted produce.

The week that followed was not a good one for the Neukoms. In fact, it bordered on disaster. Those who follow the weather closely will remember that mid-week brought heavy rains. As TV weatherman Jim Bernard pointed out, the rain helped out those in the mountains fighting forest fires. It did not help the peach crop.

The storm brought rot to the orchard, just as Jacques had described it. Fortunately, the picking crew was able to harvest a mess of peaches before the rains came, and there were a slew to bring to market this last Saturday. Fruit that was picked slightly wet did not fare well; it began to rot in the box. Ripe fruit left on the trees instantly began to develop brown splotches of rot, which quickly turned to mold.

At that point, the fear was that the mold would in turn infect the green peaches in other parts of the orchard, as it had a few years ago, when a similar summer rain ruined Jacques’ whole crop. To mitigate the potential disaster, the crew pulled any suspicious peach with a touch of brown from the trees, and Jacques plowed the sacrificed fruit into his fertile soil. If all goes according to plan, we’ll see the late summer crop of peaches at market soon, as plump, juicy and flavorful as the ones I brought home from Willow Creek.

Those who were hoping for a peach recipe will have to be satisfied with this:

Bob’s Recipe for Jacques’ Peaches

Get to market early or you’ll miss out.

Carefully peel and slice one plump, ripe peach.

Add generous splash of fresh organic cream.

Think of sunshine.

If the weather looks threatening, sing a little song: “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day...”

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