The closest many of us around here get to actual agriculture is at the pick-your-own fruit farms and orchards, of which we have several in the area. Strawberries, apples and pumpkins are all ripe for the picking at various places when in-season, but we really have the Chiles family and their peaches to thank for this trend and the chance to get our hands dirty once in a while. It was in 1974 that the Chileses first experimented with allowing the general public to pick peaches at the family’s commercial orchard, which had first been planted in 1910. As they tell it, the pick-your-own idea was simply a way to recoup some of their losses as the orchard had suffered “almost a total freeze-out” that year, and there wasn’t enough fruit to warrant hiring seasonal pickers or run their packing houses.
We live in a pick-your-own paradise, but Chiles Peach Orchard really started it all.
The rest is pick-your-own history. Though the Chileses still operate one of the biggest commercial wholesale operations of peaches, apples and nectarines in the region as the Crown Orchard Company founded in 1912, the one-time public pick-your-own survival strategy has become a major focus. At Chiles Peach Orchard in Crozet, they now have a farm market retail shop with frozen yogurt, homemade peach ice-cream parlor, jams, jellies and crafts as well as pick-your-own opportunities from May through Thanksgiving for strawberries, sweet cherries, apples and pumpkins in addition to the mid-summer peaches. The Chiles family also owns and operates Carter Mountain Orchard near Monticello, another popular place to pick your own seasonal fruit as well as get a hayride, get a peach donut or smelly candle at the Carter Mountain Bakery and Country Store or wine taste in the one-year-old wine shop and tasting room. Having first planted a vineyard at Carter Mountain in 1998 for the sale of grapes to Prince Michel winery, the Carter Mountain Wine Shop is stocked with Prince Michel wines, some of which are made exclusively with Carter Mountain grapes.
With all of these farm-y activities and various events and festivals held throughout the year, Chiles Peach Orchard and Carter Mountain Orchard are like theme parks of Central Virginia seasonality and hot spots for local families and tourists who travel from all over the state and beyond for the chance to play nice with nature for a while. And to think it all started as way to hawk a few extra peaches one bad summer, you might be surprised. Unless you’ve experienced the pleasure yourself, that is. Tasting a summer peach ripened on the tree in the Virginia sunshine is its own reward, but having the chance to pluck one of those juicy puppies yourself, to feel it yield to your touch and give way easily into your hand knowing that the fruit is at its most perfect place, is the sweetest gift.
Muffin pan $17.95, the Seasonal Cook.
Quick peach bread or muffins
From Chiles Peach Orchard
2/3 cup oil
1 cup sugar
2 cups chopped peaches
2 tsp. vanilla
3 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. soda
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Beat eggs, oil and sugar and cream well. Add peaches and vanilla. Stir in dry ingredients and nuts until blended (do not overbeat). Pour batter into two greased loaf pans. Bake for one hour. For muffins, bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Makes 12.
Best use of peaches in song: Steve Miller Band, “The Joker.”
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