“You have to be a little bit crazy to grow peaches in the high desert,” said Erik Erickson, who runs the orchard with his wife Julie. Photo courtesy of Hunter Orchards

by Sally Colby

This autumn will mark the second harvest season for Erik and Julie Erickson at Hunter Orchards in Grenada, CA. Although the couple’s fruit-growing experience was limited to what they had grown for themselves, they started their new venture with open minds and a desire to learn.

“You have to be a little bit crazy to grow peaches in the high desert,” said Erik – they grow at 2,300 feet. “We wanted to have our own business and do something with ag.” The orchard was established in the late 1970s by Marie Hunter, who advises the Ericksons. It was organic when the couple purchased it, and they will continue with that certification.

The orchard was home to a seasonal pumpkin patch with a well-established customer base, so the Eriksons agreed to continue serving the community. “We were told that if we committed to this place, people would expect to come for pumpkins,” said Erik. “Second and third generations have been visiting the pumpkin patch. School groups have been coming out for tours, and people who visited are now bringing their kids.”

When the Ericksons first started, the 2.5-acre pumpkin patch and 1.5-acre squash patch were watered with overhead irrigation. “We were watering everything,” said Erik, adding that the water source is two agricultural wells deep enough to be reliable. “There were weeds in the middle of the rows. I converted to drip this year, and I’m happy with the results so far. We’re getting a lot more water in a concentrated area where it needs to be, and the row middles are clean.”

Erik said the overhead system required constant monitoring. “During the day, we might get three changes if we started early and set a timer,” he said. “Now I have it set up so I can turn the drip on and water all the crops. It saves me about 30 hours a week handling and switching everything.” The peach orchard has always been on a drip system, with intermittent hand lines as needed when fruit is approaching ripening.

Erik and Julie also grow a selection of winter squash. To ensure a higher success rate with young plants, all squash is tray-started in the greenhouse, hardened off and then transplanted. “When seeds come up, squirrels and rabbits think it’s the most delicious snack ever,” said Erik. “Last year we direct seeded half and tray started the rest. I found that if we wait a little longer, with three or four leaves, the squirrels and rabbits didn’t bother the plants.”

Erik plants a selection of sunflowers later than usual so they’re blooming when visitors arrive for pumpkins. He’s also considering adding wildflowers to the flower selection.

Although Erik didn’t have a lot of experience growing peaches, he quickly mastered the essentials. He learned the previous owners had originally been growing apples as well as peaches, but when they went to market with both fruits, they discovered customers were more interested in peaches. They gradually introduced more peaches to the orchard to satisfy market demand.

The first peaches normally start to ripen in early July, but high temperatures have wreaked havoc on the crop. Erick predicted this year’s crop progression will be somewhat unpredictable due to ongoing high temperatures.

“A lot of people grow peaches in the Central Valley,” said Erik. “Temperatures there are very hot during the day and at night, it still remains hot. Here, it’s hot during the day but it cools down to 50º or 60º.” The result is more complex sugar development and superior flavor.

Early peaches are semi-cling and good for eating, but once August arrives and the freestone varieties are ripe, customers start asking for canning peaches. “Elbertas are the best tasting canning peaches,” said Erik. “People know when they’ll be ready, so they call ahead and buy them by the case.”

Last year, the peach crop finished the second week in September. Erik said their season is long and extends beyond the season in the Bay area and south. “As soon as we’re starting with Red Haven, the peach season is close to being finished,” said Erik. “By the end of the season, we are the last place in California to get peaches.” In addition to Red Haven, Erik keeps a close eye on Cresthaven, Glohaven, Roza, Flamin’ Fury® and Elberta as well as a selection of white peaches and nectarines.

Several years ago, the Hunter Orchard peach trees were hard-pruned to encourage fruit production lower on the tree. “The trees are doing well now,” said Erik. “We’ll get back larger fruit and higher production. Over the next five to 10 years, we hope to get the orchard back to the way it was years ago.”

Although Hunter Orchards has become known for peaches, the Ericksons are also harvesting a selection of apple varieties including Gala, Fuji, Spartan, Empire, Honeycrisp, Jonathan and Winesap that ripen from late summer through early autumn.

While most of the Bay area pumpkin patches were closed last fall, Hunter Orchards remained open. Erik harvested bins of pumpkins and put them in the cooler, then brought out a few at a time to spread out the harvest and try to avoid running out. “We sold out a week before Halloween last year,” he said. “Another farm in Mount Shasta sold out on October 15.”

True to their promise, the Ericksons helped a school group that was unable to come to Hunter Orchard’s pumpkin patch due to COVID. Erik took pumpkins to the school and set them out in a playground area to create an experience for the children. He and Julie hope to continue with more community events in the future. This autumn, Erik is hoping to host a pumpkin carving contest and plans to build a stage so he can host musical acts.

The Ericksons sell produce directly from the farm and at several farmers markets in the area. Erik is careful to take only the best fruit to market. “This place has a good reputation for peaches,” he said. “I won’t take anything to market if it doesn’t taste good – I’ll either donate or give them away, but we don’t sell them.”

Erik is helping with an effort to assemble an all-Siskiyou County farmers market that would operate from an online ordering system with pickup in a designated location. That market started last year with an assortment of goods from local farmers. The Ericksons believe it will be a good venue for growers who grow only one or two crops and for small-scale meat or egg producers.

“I wanted to highlight the amazing farmers here,” said Erik, describing the effort. “With COVID last year, people were shopping more locally and learning where food comes from. With people coming up from the Bay area, things were flying off the shelves. It wasn’t just a pumpkin patch – it was a nice, local, Siskiyou County-Shasta Valley ‘here’s what’s grown in a five-mile radius.’”

As Erik and Julie continue to improve their growing skills, they realize the crops they choose must be suitable for their area. “Without a greenhouse, we can’t do anything commercially,” said Erik. “We have a very short growing season and the weather is unpredictable – last year it was cooler and didn’t get hot until mid-July, and this year we had more than two weeks of over 100º.”

Visit Hunter Orchards online at HunterOrchards.com.