Varied tastes

Published 9:59 pm Friday, June 26, 2009

Dozens of peach varieties are represented in the annual Peach Auction at Jack Hayes Field. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It would be a seemingly endless task to attempt to name all the different varieties of Chilton County’s most famous fruit.

“Most growers have anywhere from 25 to 35 varieties on any given farm,” Area Horticulturalist Bobby Boozer said.

One purpose of having that many varieties is to prolong the peach season. Some varieties are harvested in late May, while others are not picked until August.

“They (growers) want to have fruit to offer the whole season. By having that number, it allows for a more consistent supply year in and year out,” Boozer said.

Then there is the finicky consumer. Some prefer the early cling varieties, which tend to be firmer, while others prefer freestones. Some peaches are low acid, while others are high in acidity.

“Some people like a T-bone steak, some like a sirloin,” local peach grower Henry Williams said.

Then there are old favorites, such as June Gold, Loring or Elberta.

“It all goes back to what folks remember,” Boozer said. “It’s like the older vegetable varieties — Better Boy and Big Boy. There have been and continue to be newer varieties that are taking their place with the purpose of improving the fruit’s characteristics, whether it be flavor, firmness, size, color or texture.”

When it comes to peach varieties, genetics is the name of the game. Sometimes a variety is the result of a planned cross; other times it occurs as a mutation on someone’s farm. Most come from USDA or state experimental programs.

“It takes years unless you’re lucky to come up with a variety that’s accepted,” Williams said.

Many breeders have introduced their varieties on a trial basis at the Chilton Research and Extension Center, located near Thorsby on County Road 29. This enables local growers to observe the peaches to see if they’re reliable in the local climate.

After a variety is accepted, then comes the fun part — naming the variety. Some, like Spring Prince and Ruby Prince, are named after breeders. Some have even carried the names of U.S. Presidents.

“It’s kind of like naming children,” Boozer said.

When people buy fruit from a supermarket, Boozer said they tend to forget all the variables that control the crop — temperature, rainfall, winter conditions, chilling, even hurricanes.

For example, much of this year’s crop has a skin blemish that has almost nothing to do with the taste but would not be found in a supermarket.

“People are not used to variation. They are used to the same standard,” Boozer said. “If you buy local Chilton County produce, you see the good, the bad and the ugly of it.”