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Life’s a peach when you protect your harvest through conservation

By Donnie Lunsford, USDA-NRCS public affairs specialist

Fredericksburg peaches aren't your garden variety peaches, nor will you find them in your local produce section at the grocery store. Instead, you must take a drive to the Texas Hill Country, west of Austin, and stop at one of the peach stands intertwined with the vineyards along U.S. Highway 290 to enjoy the ripest and most flavorful peaches that keep you coming back for more.

Studebaker Farms, near Fredericksburg, is one of the farms you will likely see with a peach stand waiting for you to arrive. Russ Studebaker began Studebaker Farms in 2002 with his wife Lori and their three sons. From May to August, Studebaker Farms market their peaches by roadside sales to consumers.

Fredericksburg, known as a place where people come for the unique old downtown shopping district, locally grown grapes and wine, and for the famous peaches, it is also home to many farmers like the Studebakers.

Getting Started

Studebaker said, "I bought my farm which was a foreclosed cotton farm while I was in the merchant marines and continued going to sea for another 10 years. When my wife and I began our family, I knew we could grow our family while growing this farm into what it is today. It was in pretty bad shape, and we turned it into a peach orchard like the farms I grew up working on for my dad in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, where my father coached."

With the help of the USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Studebaker made an application for high tunnels after his experience of using a tunnel from a grant he found out about through the Texas Fruit Growers Association. He was impressed with the results he experienced after he determined the high tunnels work well with the right materials. NRCS provided Studebaker with technical and financial assistance he needed to plan and install high tunnels to protect his trees from severe weather and allow him to extend the growing season much like a greenhouse without the heating system and raised beds.

"I was able to get the right high tunnel for the Texas Hill Country through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Programs," said Studebaker. "The high tunnel allows me to get peaches earlier in the season, it allows me to irrigate using surface emitters reducing root rot, apply pesticides more efficiently, and reduce the risk of nutrient runoff into the nearby creeks."

The high tunnels have proven to be a success for Studebaker. Now he has more than 2,000 peach trees protected during the winters from freeze damage that in the past had wiped out entire seasons.

Facing Challenges

"In 2013, we had a late freeze and I had burned 40 bales of hay, ran wind machines, and had helicopters running all night to keep the temperature about two degrees above freezing, and they still froze,"

Studebaker said. "I walked into my high tunnel and witnessed no damage, and we have had peaches every year on the protected trees ever since they were installed."

High tunnels protect the trees since the temperatures are regulated inside the tunnel through venting and raising the sides of the tunnels. The plastic is also removed during the summer and reinstalled in the fall before any threat of freezing occurs.

"A couple of years ago while I was still learning how to use these tunnels, it froze that night and by midmorning it was 59 degrees outside, but inside of the tunnel was 100 degrees which burned off some of the blooms on our trees," Studebaker explained. "We also found that if you leave the plastic on for too long, it will affect the flavor of the fruit."

Conservation on the landscape

Studebaker Farms implements multiple conservation practices to continue to be an innovator and a steward of the land. He no longer plows anything on the farm to reduce erosion and non-point source pollution. Studebaker remembers what the farm first looked like when he began his orchard and knows that you must be proactive instead of reactive to continue to stay in agriculture.

"This farm uses multiple conservation practices and management to improve soil health, water quality, and increase productivity. These practices help build soil organic matter, reduces erosion, and lowers the application rates for pesticides and fertilizers and so much more." said Cliff Kinnibrugh, NRCS agronomist.

Nutrient and pest management is used throughout the orchard to keep healthy trees and plants, and to also ensure healthy fruit from pest pressure. Studebaker finds using the tunnels reduces the amount of herbicide and pesticide use.

"For me to spray 800 trees conventionally, I typically use about two and a half tanks of spray, however, in the high tunnels it will take about half of a tank because it's so much more efficient in a much more controlled environment," Studebaker said. "I have also switched to a gable style vent to keep the plastic off of the blooms, but also allows bees to easily escape."

Additionally, soil health is a critical component of Studebaker's operation.

He added, "I decided to plant cover crops to improve my soil health and I also added pollinator plants to the cover crop mix to enhance productivity, especially on my blackberry orchard. This helps multiple pollinator species like the monarch butterfly which we see every year during the migration which continues to add life buzzing around the farm."

Studebaker is proud to have been able to raise a family on the income he has made from an orchard that he has built. He doesn't do it alone. All three of his boys and his wife are an integral part of the success of the farm. His boys spent many years on the farm filling in where needed and now they are off to of the farm. His boys spent many years on the farm filling in where needed and now they are off to college and in careers, but it is still up in the air if they will return to the farm. His wife manages the fruit stand right off the highway and continues to be the face you see when you stop by to grab your ripe, flavorful, and ready to eat peaches.

Studebaker concluded, "I'm very glad I decided to think outside the box and use high tunnels to reduce my risk of crop loss, and now I sleep a whole lot easier at night knowing that my orchard is protected and will not be wiped out by a freeze."

Life’s a peach when you protect your harvest through conservation, By Donnie Lunsford, USDA-NRCS public affairs specialist (2019, Aug)