The Pursuit of Fruit

By Jeremy Walther    
Photography by Jenna Noel and Holly Driggers

The romance of a backyard orchard is undeniable. Even for those who see agricultural endeavors as hellacious labor, the idea of walking down rows of green trees swollen with fruit stirs at least slight pangs of farmer envy. But anyone who has lived that life can tell you it’s not all picnics and evening strolls. With four trees or 40,000, Central Texas orchards demand almost constant attention to survive and produce. Dan Rohrer is more than familiar with the challenges of orchard management.

He’s grown peaches and other fruits at his Rocky Hill Orchards near Fredericksburg for the past 15 years using organic and low-chemical management techniques. Before serving as president of both the Texas Fruit Growers Association and the Hill Country Fruit Council, Rohrer grew fruit in Pennsylvania and California. 

“Individual growers throughout the Hill Country all have their own methods of mitigating the effects of erratic Texas weather,” Rohrer says. “There are two helicopters at the Fredericksburg airport. It’s not unusual for a handful of growers to pool funds and hire pilots to hover over orchards during certain times of the year to push down warm air and gain a few degrees in the orchards.”

Frantic nights of lighting bonfires throughout peach orchards are a common spring experience for Hill Country peach growers, as well, and some use industrial-size fans and giant mist sprayers to help regulate temperatures and save crops from unwelcome climatic elements.

“A good rule of thumb is to consider the ‘five-year cycle’ for peaches,” explains Rohrer. “Out of five typical years, you lose an entire crop one year. The second year you almost break even. The third you actually do break even. The other two years you just hope are good enough to cover the rest.”

Pecan trees, the other major commercially grown fruit trees in Central Texas, are notoriously difficult to cultivate. Only well-developed techniques created by a handful of Texas growers will consistently grow viable trees that can survive a variety of conditions.

Hal Berdoll, owner of Berdoll Pecan Farm just east of Austin, supplies containerized trees to large commercial growers as far away as New Mexico. Even after 29 years of perfecting the growing technique and training staff, Berdoll works perpetually to maintain the operation.

“I keep all of our 50 to 60 guys busy six days a week,” Berdoll says. “If we’re not in the nursery growing new trees, we’re in the orchards pruning, spraying, harvesting and managing the irrigation system…or we’re in the shelling plant. It’s constant.”

And while most established commercial growers rely on everything in the nature-taming toolbox to ensure a successful growing operation, some pioneers choose a little reverse psychology to fight the good fight. John and Jimma Byrd own and run a 110-acre organic pecan orchard in San Saba. Instead of resorting to chemical treatment during the inevitable pest infestation, the Byrds rely on nature to tame itself.

“We’ve worked with researchers over the last few years to evaluate the potential bats have for pest control in an agricultural environment,” says John. The preliminary results of setting several bat houses throughout the orchard suggest they’ve hit the jackpot, but the Byrds aren’t surprised.

“If you want to grow pecans, the first thing you do is throw away all your books about growing pecans,” explains John, whose family has grown pecans in Central Texas for five generations. “We have native pecans growing in our orchard that are 250 years old. What makes people think they can do better than nature?”

Jimma Byrd defends their M.O. to those who would cry that organic production results in decreased yields and lower profits.

“Organic pecans command a higher price, so we don’t have to squeeze every drop of energy from our crop, every year,” Jimma says. “We take as much out of the system as we need, but make sure there’s plenty left for crops next year and for the next generation. By reducing financial dependence on maximum yields, we’re able to become more sustainable and to better prevent problems that conventional growers face.”

Lower-impact agricultural commitments like those of the Byrds’ are creating a new market—one embraced by a new generation of consumers sensitive to the global effects of their everyday purchases. But it doesn’t feel like a trend to Jimma and John.

“Farming with nature is about as old school as it gets,” says Jimma. “This is what our grandparents and great-grandparents used to do. We’re just rediscovering the gap of information that was lost between them and the generation that made chemical farming standard.”

Whether the Byrds are pioneers of the new or old school, it’s hard to argue that they’re anything but true innovators. Still harder to deny is the urge to rally behind anyone who is successfully paving a new and improved path toward success. This is especially true when established experts, and decades of research, previously concluded that the same path would lead to failure.

Jack Dougherty started growing olive trees in Wimberley 10 years ago. His Bella Vista Ranch boasts over 1,000 olive trees and a pressing facility, making it one of the first locally produced sources of olive oil in the region. In a community that measures the value of food beyond just a price tag, anyone who introduces a locally grown product not historically available is regarded as a hero. But even heroes have their challenges.

“One of my early motivations was research extension agents telling me olives can’t be grown in Texas,” says Dougherty.

Through 10 years of experimentation, Dougherty is creating solutions to issues that caused past olive orchards to fail, and has sold out of oil every year since 2001. But the last decade hasn’t been visited by a wandering Texas climatic psychopath like the early ’80s arctic blast that killed even mature live oaks in the Dallas area. Dougherty admits that it’s too early to add olives to the short list of marketable Texas fruits.

“We lost over 400 young trees one year to a hard freeze,” he says. “When that happens, you try to improve your program, then try again. You can’t just sit in a downtown office all day and check on trees during holidays or hunting trips. I’m inspecting, touching, working these trees every single day, and I never forget that I’m running a business. If you attempt commercial growing as a hobby, you’re doomed to fail.”

Commercial growers in Central Texas cope with short-term setbacks as a consequence of working on a large scale. Reducing the scale reduces risk, and not having to depend on a successful harvest to pay the bills helps keep the ulcers away. Small backyard fruit growers can be wildly successful without the stresses and pressures that commercial growers face—evident in the solitary citrus trees that dot East Austin, the small stands of apples in Far South Austin, the backyard pears in the rocky hills of West Austin, and the figs, loquats, persimmons and other fruit-bearing trees scattered about Central Texas.

TreeFolks’ Urban Orchard Program was formed 10 years ago in a joint effort with the organization now known as the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA). TreeFolks’ executive director, Scott Harris, has overseen the planting of 30 small fruit tree orchards in parks, schools and other public spaces throughout Austin, and has a positive perspective on the feasibility of backyard production.

“We’ve had great success managing these small orchards organically and living by the old saying that the best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow,” Harris says. “We recommend an almost constant presence with trees to catch problems before they get out of hand, and to intervene before more aggressive action is required. An organic approach doesn’t just replace horticultural chemicals with organic alternatives; it requires maintaining a broader perspective and working with nature.”

Harris says the key to success is using a healthy mix of species that, among other benefits, supports a diverse community of insect predators to help keep bad bugs in check. He also emphasizes the importance of regular maintenance.

“Growing fruit trees on a small scale is actually much easier than the books have you believe,” says Harris. “Southern species of pear trees are the easiest, but it’s not impossible to grow pecan, peach or even citrus and apple.”

Chris Winslow of It’s About Thyme retail nursery near Manchaca agrees. He’s spent decades finding varieties of fruit trees best suited to the ambivalent climate of Central Texas.

“When planting fruit trees,” Winslow notes, “it’s all about location. For olives, figs and other trees that aren’t as cold hardy, the prime properties are ridge lands. Even better are ridge lands on the southeast side of a large body of water. Cold north winds come across the relatively warm water and warm by a few degrees when they get to the other side.”

Some fruit varieties are categorized by the required number of hours that temperatures need to hover at 35–42 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter in order for trees to set fruit. This number is known as that variety’s “required chill hours.”

“When choosing a peach variety, I would err on the high side, around 800–900,” says Winslow. “Alberta peaches need about 800 hours to break dormancy and induce blooms. You won’t see Albertas budding out in late February, which limits the chances of a freeze killing winter buds that will become this summer’s fruit.”

For many backyard fruit growers, such idiosyncrasies and unpredictability are simply par for the course. David Levine, who has grown organic fruit on six acres in Dripping Springs for nearly 20 years, says you can’t count on a good crop every year.

“Even when you do it right,” says Levine, “the trees seem to produce about every three years, especially peaches.”

Smaller-scale growers like Levine aren’t without their own hints and tricks for success, however. Levine uses a backpack sprayer to apply a solution of seaweed extract and fish emulsion about once a week, and he keeps a constant eye on each tree to pick off bugs and make sure they aren’t showing symptoms of disease or deficiencies.

Frank Garcia, an East Austinite for over 70 years who has successfully grown bushels of fist-size lemons on a tree that hugs his house, utilizes a seasonal decoration to help with proper tree temperature.

“In winter, I string lights in the branches and plug them in when we’re about to get a freeze,” says Garcia. “The warmth from the lights helps protect the tree.”

Rasmey Mau Raymond of Rasmey’s Garden in San Marcos says the key to her consistently prolific and gorgeous lemon and lime trees is layer upon layer of “compost, compost, compost!”

“I also water really well before freezes,” says Raymond, “and I haven’t lost a single tree during the mild winters.”

Mild winters might be a perk, but the booming growth rate in Central Texas along with climate changes and increased environmental pressures are creating new challenges for our area. Soils in urban areas no longer resemble anything found in nature, water costs will soon skyrocket and prime orchard land is all but gone.

Rich Zarria, former sales manager for Native Texas Nursery, predicts the changes coming to municipal water policies will dramatically impact the already-growing native plant market.

“Native plants have become a huge part of the Texas landscaping industry, almost overnight,” says Zarria. “When we are forced to start paying the true value of water, it might help trigger a continuation of that trend into backyard fruit production.”

Karen Rosel, head grower for the nursery, agrees.

 “Texas persimmon and Mexican plums still need extra water to produce, but not like peaches or apples. Ripe persimmons are great right off the tree and you can find them almost everywhere in the Hill Country, along with several constructed landscapes around town. The same goes for prickly pear, chile pequin and other fruit-bearing native plants.”

Whether incorporated into a sustainable urban landscape, lined in orchards or monitored through a kitchen window, fruit trees remain an enticing choice for growers. And the next generation of Central Texas tree wranglers will need to adapt new tools and techniques to face and embrace whatever changes the future holds.