Peach farming a year-round job

By James Ronald Skains
Journal correspondent

The next time you bite into a nice ripe juicy peach, you might take a moment to remember the long process that it takes to put that ripe peach in your hand.

"Last year was a really tough year for peaches in Louisiana," Louie Thompson, longtime own/operator of Thompson Peach Farm in Calhoun, told the Piney Woods Journal. "We were very short of peaches on our farm but thankfully, I was able to fill in the gap with vegetables to survive and also keep hope for a better year in 2018."

"My dad started the peach farm in 1966, 51 years ago, so I began to absorb the task of growing peaches at an early age. After I got grown, I decided that I wanted to do construction work which I did for several years. After my dad died, my sister and brother-in-law were going to operate the farm but he died and the Peach Farm was too much for my sister to operate by herself."

Peach tree farming, perhaps more than any other crop, takes patience, hard work and a lot of faith that "next year will always be better." Each tree requires individual care three or four times a year.

Thompson continued, "We have 3,000 peach trees here on the farm, so you can easily imagine how much time it requires to grow peaches. We have to prune the limbs, spray, prune the peaches as they bud out, keep the grass and weeds from around the trees, fertilize the trees and then we pick each peach by hand."

"We also have to take out the trees that die each year," Thompson added. "Peach trees reach their peak in production around 12-14 years of age. Within 3 or 4 years after a tree peaks in production, it iss usually time to take that tree out and replace it. It takes 3 to 4 years for a new peach tree to bear fruit."

"Our trees are planted on 16 foot rows. This spacing gives them plenty of sun light and hopefully rain," Thompson pointed out one of the impartant aspects of growing peaches.

Spacing is important in keeping the grass and weeds under control and also when we fertilize."

"Every year you will have some trees die that you have to cut down and dig up the roots. We also take out trees that have fallen off in production, so a lot of our time is actually spent cutting down trees and hauling them to our burn pile."

"When we take out a tree, we need to replace it. This year we planted about 300 new trees. We are always busy on Thompson Peach Farm, even in bad weather. Bad weather gives us a chance to work in the shop on our equipment."

"Peach growers are really at the mercy of the weather," Thompson elaborated. "Cold weather is our big natural enemy and also our best friend in each growing season."

"We need between 650 and 900 "chilling hours" each year to have a bumper crop. Chilling hours are when the temperature is between 32 degrees and 45 degrees. That is at least a combined number of cold weather days of over a month. Some varities can get by with 650 hours of "chill" but other varities require up to 900 hours."

"We have about 15 different varities of peaches on our farm," Thompson noted. "That gives us a better opportunity at good crops of peaches because the varities get ripe at different times."

"We usually start picking peaches in mid-May and go though mid-August. We have a road side stand up on the highway where we do a lot of business, both with peaches and our vegetables which include watermelons. We also grow peas, squash, snap beans, okra and a red Irish potatoes which people seem to really like."

"We also have a booth at the West Monroe Farmers Market all through the season. We have been going to that market for years. We have people from a hundred fifty mile radius come in here to buy peaches each summer," Thompson said with pride.

"Then after the picking ends, we start the cycle again for the next year. Some of our peach operation is mechanized. I use a tractor to keep the weeds and grass under control, an air-compressor to run a big limb pincher which helps make the job go faster."

"Other times, we just use regular pruning shears on the smaller limbs. I use a chain saw to cut down the trees when needed and a backhoe to dig up the stumps."

"During the time we are doing everything else, we have to be constantly on the lookout for root rot and what I call bull worms on the trees," Thompson related. "I wasn't happy at all to see LSU close their Experiment station at Calhoun. Now, it is difficult to find someone to help you solve a problem with your trees."

The Journal asked "Will there be a third genration Thompson Peach Farm?" Louie Thompson respond: "I sure hope so. I've got one grandson who seems to be getting more interested in growing peaches. I have other grand-kids that help out during the season at our roadside stand and West Monroe Market."

"Finding good farming help is not easy these days. I try to keep a couple people working all the year and several more during the picking season. And, it is a very expensive operation to grow peaches. But I love growing peaches because it always seems to work out in the long-run."

Growing peaches perhaps illustrates the greatest natural working of creation and the growing season where cold can both be a friend and a adversary in the same growing season.