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Ripe for Pickin'

East Texas Pick-Your-Own Fruit Farms
Written by Randy Mallory.

Walking through his pick-your-own peach orchard one June, Plantation Pines Farms grower Joey Wiggins noticed a customer pluck a luscious fruit and begin eating it. “When he heard me coming, I guess he got to feelin’ guilty,” Joey recalls with a smile, “so he stuck the peach, drippin’ with juice, right in his pocket and wiped his hands on his jeans. As I passed him by, I said, ‘Say, if you find a nice one, go ahead and give it a try!’”

Bravo for sympathy with a fruit-lover’s folly! Indeed, what mortal soul—overcome by fresh country air drenched in the aroma of ripening peaches—could withstand such temptations, ripe for the pickin’?

Come late spring and early summer, sunshine warms each hill and vale of the state's eastern Piney Woods…and temptation beckons. Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, nectarines, peaches, apples, figs, and muscadine grapes ripen, and so does the irresistible impulse to get out and pick your own.

"The demand for pick-your-own fruit is at an all-time high," reports Jim Jones, coordinator for produce and institutional marketing at the Texas Department of Agriculture. "City people especially are looking not only for fresh produce, but also for a fun outing with the family." To satisfy that craving, a number of pick-your-own farms fling open their gates to fans of the fresh 'n' fruity.

For six years running, Gina Paschal of Dallas has made the two-hour produce pilgrimage, kids in tow, to Plantation Pines Farms, which is near Tyler. “We live in the city, so we always look forward to coming to the farm,” she says, adding that as many as 20 of her Dallas friends tag along. One of them, Sara Burke, heads straight for the blueberries, which ripen in June and July. “It’s neat for the kids to see that they don’t just come out of a box in the grocery,” she says.

Fruit-picking bears a more practical side for seasoned harvesters like Emma and Bob Brownlee of Houston, who trek to King’s Orchard near Planters­ville al­most weekly each summer. The Brownlees work like efficient picking ma­chines, quietly filling sacks with whatever’s ripe, such as June blackberries and nectarines or late-summer apples and figs. Says Emma, “We eat some fresh, give some away, and freeze the rest for eating all through the year.”

Before the advent of freezers, generations of fruit-lovers relied on canning and drying for prolonging their sweet indulgences. Along with seeds for gardens, ear­ly Texas settlers brought rootstock to start home orchards whose bounty supplied their own families’ needs. Some farms turned exceptional harvests into profit by selling excess fruit to stores and individuals in nearby towns. As railroad service (and, with it, access to distant markets) blossomed in the late 1800s, so did interest in commercial fruit- growing.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, a number of pioneer pomologists (scientific fruit-growers) introduced improved fruit varieties to Texas. One well-known grower, Gilbert Onder­donk (see Speaking of Texas, April 1996), started nurseries in South Texas that furnished acclimated fruit trees and shrubs to Gulf Coast farmers between the Rio Grande and New Orleans. Production of common fruits such as apples, peaches, and figs swelled and peaked before and during World War II. Then, as now, commercial orchards in Texas sold primarily to the fresh-fruit market, not the processed-food industry, according to Dr. Benton Storey, professor of horticulture at Texas A&M University.

In the current quest for fresh-fruit perfection, Texas researchers are trying to pack produce with more nutrition.

“We’re working more than ever with the medical community to improve characteristics of many fruits and vegetables to help prevent human diseases,” explains Dr. Leonard Pike, director of the Vegetable Improvement Center at Texas A&M. “Blueberries, for in­stance, seem to have the most cancer- fight­ing, antioxidant compounds of any fruit. Within a few years, we could have fruits that deliver higher levels of natural medicines to consumers.”

King’s Orchard, one of Texas’ larg­est pick-your-own operations, tries to stay on that cutting edge of fruit technology, with 45 acres in production, in­cluding an experimental plot for testing 155 new varieties.

“We try to see what grows best in our very humid climate. We’re always looking down the road several years, planning what to offer our 25,000 or so annual visitors,” says farm horticulturist Dan Copeland. “The goal is a consistent harvest. We want to make sure there’s always something for people to pick.”

George Coulam, an amateur horticulturist who admired California’s pick-your-own operations, planted King’s Orchard’s first trees in 1987 on land adjacent to the site of another of his ventures, the popular Texas Renaissance Festival. Three years later, he opened the orchard to the public.

King’s Orchard offers eight varieties of blackberries, five of blueberries, two of nectarines, 14 of peaches, eight of apples, and one variety of strawberry, not to mention what is perhaps the state’s biggest pick-your-own fig orchard, comprised of some 1,600 trees (see sidebar above). The pastoral place has the well-manicured look of a research facility, plus amenities for pick-your-own’ers.

A computer-controlled drip-irrigation system administers pH-balanced well water mixed with fertilizer in doses appropriate for each variety. Peach and apple trees grow on Tatura trellises, an Australian-designed guy-wire system that holds the fruit within easy reach.

The orchard’s crowning crowd-pleas­­­er—the tried-and-true Chandler strawberry—grows atop 14-inch-high earthen beds that prove easy on the back. “People go crazy over strawberries, be­cause in Tex­as they’re the first fresh fruit of the year, normally ripening in mid-March and lasting through May,” says Dan. “Fam­­ilies bring their kids and picnic bas­kets and make a day of it.” Despite signs requesting “No Eating in the Orchard,” many kids return to the weigh-in scales with strawberry-stained faces.

Come late spring and early summer, sunshine warms each hill and vale of the Piney Woods... and temptation beckons.

Consumers who jump for joy over picking their own fruit should remember the months of hard work the harvest requires, reminds Kent Wiggins, who, along with his wife, Juanita, and the fam­ilies of their three sons, operate Plan­tation Pines Farms. “We’re lucky we have lots of family working together, helping each other out season by season,” says Kent. He and Juanita handle 10 acres of blackberries and blueberries. Son Joey and his wife, Char­lotte, handle six acres of peaches. And the couple’s second son, Nickey, and his wife, Nancy, handle six acres of choose-and-cut Christ­mas trees. Third son, Chris, helps when he can, and his wife, Deb­bie, assists with sales.

Plantation Pines takes its name, in fact, from the Christmas tree operation the Wiggins clan started 20 years ago. When Kent’s father, the late Statton Wiggins, moved to the family farm in 1983, he told stories of pick-your-own farms back in Loui­siana where, he said, “It seems like they just sit in the shade and take in the money.” After the family added rabbit-eye blueberries in 1984 and peach­es in 1988 to the menu, Grand­pa Wiggins re­marked, “Man, if I’d known ya’ll were going to work this hard, I’d have never brought it up.”

Peaches, in particular, are persnickety, says Joey. Once they’ve remained dormant during the winter for 750 to 800 “chilling hours” (below 45 degrees Fahrenheit), peach trees bloom at the first sign of warm weather. If a late spring freeze follows—as Joey faced in mid-March of 1994 and 1996—the blossoms (and, hence, the potential for peaches) are partially or totally destroyed.

When peaches and berries are plentiful, primarily in June and July, Plantation Pines echoes with the sounds of high-spirited pickers. “You hear them in the fields laughing and talking and having a great time,” says Juanita. “They also love feeding our goats, chickens, and donkey, and throwing their picnic scraps to our dog, Sampson.”

“We get a lot of repeat customers—carloads from the city on weekends, and lots of locals during the week,” adds Kent. “Some customers pick a hundred pounds or more of berries to eat all year long.”

At EasTex Farms, near Rusk, one customer’s family ate almost that much in a week. “One family, originally from Russia and now living in Dallas, picked 75 pounds of berries and ate them all the next week. They said that back home, food like that was so hard to get they just couldn’t resist,” says Barbara Bradshaw. Barbara’s husband, Bill, runs the 10-acre Cherokee County fruit-and-vegetable operation.

EasTex Farms grows three varieties of blueberries, two of peaches, 11 of muscadine grapes, and several rows of figs, as well as various vegetables—all of which are available as “you pick or we pick.” Barbara and her son Howard Montgomery and daughter Kara Han­cock operate an adjacent food manufacturing facility under the name of Gourmet Gardens, which currently ships products to nearly 4,000 stores.

“We started the kitchen in 1991, with me stirring up jelly to use our excess blueberries,” says Barbara. “Now, we’ve got 12 employees and offer 55 products.” During the holiday season, the farm store also does a brisk gift-basket business.

The pick-your-own side of the business remains susceptible to the whims of weather, reminds Bill. “Farming sometimes can be a throw of the dice, but that just comes with the territory, so you can’t worry much about it,” he says.

Bill and Barbara don’t worry much about pickers sampling their fruit, either. “We tell them to try out whatever they want, within reason,” Barbara says. “We want people to have as much fun as possible.”

Fun with fruit—that’s the ticket for most pick-your-own patrons, sampling or no sampling. Eyeing a heavily laden peach tree at King’s Orchard, uncertain over which golden fruit to pick, Jamie Dies of Pearland and friend Brenda Duke of Beeville joke that no one will ever mistake them for “farm girls.” In the meantime, Jamie’s daughter, Taylor, beams over a just-picked peach, and Brenda’s daughter, Eevan, bubbles over her buckets of blueberries. And the two moms know exactly why they came. Says Brenda, “Letting the kids romp around all excited, learning how things really grow…it’s a lot of fun!”

What’s even more fun, as warm summer days ripen fruits to their peak of perfection, is the experience of biting into a juicy peach or a handful of flavorful blueberries…fresh from the orchard. So heed the call of the country. Go out and pick your own!

Fun with Fruit

Nature's delights are fresh on the vine at the following East Texas pick-your-own farms. Respect farmers' hard work by following common-sense rules: Pick only ripe fruit (ask for help if you're unsure); pay for what you pick (even if you notice a slight blemish); don't knock produce on the ground or damage branches or vines. Tip: Fruit may be most abundant in the middle or at far ends of rows, above and below eye level, and underneath leaves. Some farms allow in-field sampling–ask first. Already-picked fruit is available at some locations. Since seasons and availability vary, call ahead before going.

King's Orchard is in Grimes County, between Magnolia and Plantersville. Take Farm-to-Market Rd. 1774 to County Rd. 302 (look for sign), and go west three-fourths mile to the farm. The season runs Mar-Sep and features strawberries (mid-Mar–May), blackberries (early May–mid-July), blueberries (late May–mid-July), nectarines (mid-May–mid-June), peaches (late May–mid-July), apples and figs (mid-July until closing). Hours: Tue-Sun 8-5. Wheelchair accessible. Write to King's Orchard, Rt. 2, Box 653, Plantersville 77363; 409/894-2766. Web site: www.kingsorchard.com.

To reach Smith County's Plantation Pines Farms, take US 69 to FM 2016 (1 mile north of Tyler), go west to CR 429, turn right, and proceed to the farm entrance. Picking begins about May 20 for blackberries and June 1 for peaches and blueberries. Hours: Mon-Fri 7-7, Sat 7-3. Baskets are furnished for adults; bring your own for kids. Some fresh vegetables and home-canned preserves are available. The farm also sells cut-your-own Christmas trees beginning Thanksgiving Day (hours for cutting: Sun-Fri 1 p.m.-5:30 p.m., Sat 9-5:30). Wheelchair accessible. Write to Plantation Pines Farms, 9628 CR 429, Tyler 75704; 903/592-2041 (berries), 595-6860 (peaches), 595-2046 (trees).

EasTex Farms is between Jacksonville and Rusk in Cherokee County. Take US 69 to CR 1605 (watch for signs), and go west a quarter-mile to the farm. The farm offers blueberries, peaches, muscadine grapes, and figs, as well as various vegetables and cut-your-own Christmas trees. An on-site processing facility, Gourmet Gardens, cans fruits and vegetables, available in the farm store along with other Texas-made food and gift items. The season begins in early June and lasts until mid-Sep. Hours: Mon-Sat 8-5:30 (June-Aug) and Mon-Fri 8-5:30 (Sep). Christmas trees and seasonal gift baskets are available daily 8-6 Nov-Dec. Fields are wheelchair accessible; store is not, but they will accommodate patrons as necessary. For Gourmet Gardens' price sheets, call 800/755-2434. Write to EasTex Farms, Rt. 5, Box 427, Rusk 75785; 903/683-5726. Web site: www.tx-marketeers.com/EasTexFarms.

For other pick-your-own, on-farm, or roadside operations that sell fresh fruits and vegetables, get a copy of the "Texas Fresh Produce Guide" or "Texas Certi-fied Farmers Markets," two free statewide listings. Write to the Texas Dept. of Agriculture, Box 12847, Austin 78711; 512/463-7555. You can access these documents on the Web at www.agr.state.tx.us.

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From the June 1999 issue.

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