HERITAGE FRUIT: Peach King

peachy

Davis Peach Farm’s Wading River legacy.

For 100 years Davis Peach Farm, now located in Wading River, has been supplying the luscious stone fruit to residents of the East End and beyond. Husband and wife co-owners Christine and David Davis produce mainly peaches on the farm’s 64 acres: 80 varieties of the peachy king in addition to 50 kinds of plums, 30 types of nectarines, 6 varieties of apricots and various strains and hybrids of sweet and sour cherries, apples, pluots—the lovechild of the plum and apricot—raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, currants, figs, tomatoes. When I visited the farm in early June, the harvest had yet to yield its maximum. According to Christine, curious East Enders seeking to venture out for a weekend break in the country wind through Sound Avenue to experience the summer’s produce at farm stands such as theirs. The Davises have a regular base of customers at their pickyour-own orchard that come from all over the tristate area.

“Due to the recession, people are spending time with their families, which was how it was years and years ago,” she says. “When they visit our farm, the whole family comes out and then spends the day at Wildwood Park, a neighboring water amusement park.” Aside from at the farm stand, the Davises’ peaches are sold at the farmers markets at Westhampton Beach, Mount Sinai, Patchogue, Lake Grove at Whole Foods, and Port Jefferson—call the farm before heading out to see if they’ll be there.

In early July, I received a heavy shipment of peaches from the first crop, a trio of yellow, white and red cling peaches and hefty ones at that, about five pounds of each variety; enough to make a few months’ worth of canned peaches or 20 peach cobblers. I studied the skins of the triad: beneath those furry coverings were flushes of color—deep musky reds, creamy pinkish whites and orange-tinged yellows. Cutting into the peaches released juices from under the fuzzy skins; these peaches were so ripe that the flesh of the peach was bursting through its skin. One variety not included in the batch was the best-selling donut peach ($5 per quart), so named because of its flattened shape.

David Davis is a descendant of a line of farmers, beginning with the immigration of his great-grandfather to the States. Davis took over the farm, originally located in Mount Sinai, when he was 15 after his father died in the late ’40s. He’s seen the shifting of the island’s crops and the entrance and exit of farming families in response to the dwindling value of the potato as a cash crop.

Davis picked me up in downtown Riverhead in a dusty gray Prius; he was outfitted in an orange shirt and jeans, with a tanned complexion, blue eyes and white hair. I’d been looking forward to hearing his side of the story, having only been privy to Christine’s involvement with the farm. In his grandfather’s generation, about 90 percent of the island’s food supply was produced by hand on the farms. There were no chainsaws, only handsaws and axes. Now fewer people are needed to farm the land; modern equipment has eliminated the need for manual labor. “A saw machine could run through an acre in 20 minutes,” he says. Faced with diminishing returns, the number of farming families shrank, from west of Mount Sinai to the potato country of Nassau County.

This decrease of agriculture inspired his father to find different sources of farming revenue: a chicken hatchery, for instance, which Davis revived for his own business, selling chicks for three cents per pound or 10 cents per chick. Back in the early ’60s, Davis says, you could buy a chicken for two dollars and get eggs out of them for 12 months. 1953 was a landmark year, with the market value of eggs at $1 per dozen. Business soared to yield $18,000 in profits, pretty big for that time. By 1963, the stream slowed down, people stopped paying their bills and the short-lived hatchery closed shop. For some people that kind of setback would permanently steer them away from farming. But for Davis, farming was the ultimate challenge, the matching of human mettle against the punches thrown by Mother Nature. Early on in his childhood, he’d grown accustomed to the hardships of the lifestyle: for example, living in a house with only a few heated rooms. He recalls that time without bitterness. “Every teenager should work on a farm in the summer and learn what hard work is,” he says. Oftentimes his family found it difficult to find good workers since “most of them don’t like working when it’s too cold or it’s too hot,” says Davis.

Christine, whom I meet at the farm stand on Sound Avenue, echoes the same sentiment. It was my Aha! moment, she says, describing her first time working on the Davis Farm as a young adult. “Good, hard work. You got up early and worked every day, even with a sprained wrist.” Dressed in an olive T-shirt layered over a gray tank top, with long chestnut-brown hair and silver hoop earrings, Christine openly talks shop: “In the winter, December, May and June, we open up the rows so the equipment can get through; we get rid of the dead wood and prune the trees down. From July through October, there’s the picking season. November is when the demand for (wood from the cherry and plum trees) is at its peak.”

“There is a lot of competition so we keep changing the varieties of peaches to keep competitive within the island,” says Davis. One time he caught a neighboring farmer peering out his windows using binoculars as Davis awaited a delivery. For Davis, that behavior is taken with a grain of salt. He willingly helps out fellow farmers, advising on soil content, pruning, ways to increase yield, knowing that eventually (hopefully) it will be returned in kind.

This year, he notes, was probably the earliest peach season on record, as peaches like hot weather and well-drained soil. But on the 50 of their 64 acres where they grow peaches, it is an ongoing battle. Woodchucks enjoy eating the new trees (imagine dealing with 250 to 300 of them) and infectious plant diseases threaten to plague the immaculate skin of the peaches.

Why keep at this uphill battle? Perhaps as a living testament to the legacy of the Davis farming family. The land, Davis remembers, was a bunch of weeds when he bought it in 1988, after the Mount Sinai farm was sold, and planted the orchard from scratch. “From November through April in the ’60s, I used to do all of the farm work solo using a handsaw to prune the trees on 60 acres,” he says. Even when he hired more workers, they still couldn’t match that work load in the same timeframe. There’s something to be said about that achievement in keeping the farming tradition alive.

Perhaps Christine says it best: “I am always looking for ways to educate people about farming and am always open to suggestions on how to improve our history and legacy. I have visions of Davis Peach Farm being around for another hundred years but sadly I know that it will never happen. We are dying off, our traditions are dying off. It’s harder and harder to make a go of it and we never know which year is going to be our last. If someone has an answer or an idea, please tell us. Our history is being lost one small farm at a time. I hope that as a society we don’t realize that until after it’s too late.”

Davis Peach Farm—Farm Stand and Orchard
1039 Sound Avenue
Wading River
www.davispeachfarm.com/wp

631.929.1115

Open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.The u-pick hours are from 9 to 5. Always call to confirm the orchard is open on the day you want to come picking.

Regina Geok-Ling Tan grew up in farming country in rural New Jersey.

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