written and photographed by Carly Diaz
On a warm, dry morning in early August, the orchards at Jossy Farms are quiet. A large barn is tucked between rows of trees and small wagons are lined up, awaiting the arrival of customers eager to fill them with fresh peaches. Owner Bob Jossy surveys the endless rows of trees, their low-hanging branches laden with ripe, yellow-orange fruit with just a hint of rosiness. It’s the height of summer and the ideal time for peach harvest.
The absence of rain has turned the grass hues of yellow and brown and given the peaches the perfect conditions for growing.
After the winter months, the arrival of spring with its abundance of strawberries is a sweet gesture to the changing season. By August the stone fruit season has arrived. It’s time for drip-down-your-arm juices while you attempt to slurp every last bit of summer. No elegance required.
This 195-acre farm in Hillsboro has been in the Jossy family for nearly a century, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the Jossys planted their first peach orchards. The Jossys planted the u-pick orchards in 1979. Peach trees typically take about three years to begin producing fruit. By 1983, the farm was ready for its first u-pick customers.
I decided to begin offering u-pick because I thought it would work. And it did.
In the mid-1980s, a crop disaster took out a significant amount of fruit, and Jossy knew there wouldn’t be enough peaches to offer both packaged peaches and u-pick to customers. That year, he decided to just offer u-pick and hasn’t looked back.
Few summer activities are as grounding as visiting a farm and picking your own fruit, at least in the Pacific Northwest. “I distinctly remember one man saying he didn’t know why he had never done u-pick before, it was so much fun,” Jossy said. “It was how the poor man got his fruit, but now it’s the ‘in’ thing to do.”
The farm offers five types of peaches commonly found in the Willamette Valley: veteran peaches, red haven peaches, blazing star peaches, star fire peaches and vivid peaches. Each peach variety has a different ripening period character. Some are better for baking or canning, some are best fresh off the tree. In addition, Jossy Farms offers apples, pears, hazelnuts and walnuts. Hazelnuts are the largest crop at the farm and peaches the largest u-pick crop.
The season typically begins the last week of July and lasts approximately forty days. “But it’s never the same,” Jossy explained. “Every year is different.”
There are nearly 2,000 varieties of peaches in the world, with more than 300 growing in the United States. Peaches are native to China, which remains the top producer today. Peach trees can produced for around thirty years, though farmers such as Jossy typically don’t let trees go so long. “My new rule is never let a peach tree grow older than 18 years,” Jossy said. “They’re just not as productive as a young tree.”
The extreme winter cold and excessive spring rain, however, hit Jossy Farms and the surrounding area hard this year. “We are essentially wiped out of peach trees,” Jossy said. “On January 11, we had between 0-5 degrees in the area. When it got that cold, it killed an incredible amount of trees.” The cold reduced the ability of the trees to resist a bacterial disease commonly found in peach trees, and Jossy lost about 90 percent of them.
“The trees are resistant when it’s warm,” Jossy said, “but the ones that didn’t die were affected by the cold, wet spring, which allowed the disease to continue to grow inside the tree. We’re going to lose even more trees.” Although he predicts the farm will still have the 10 percent of remaining peaches available for u-pick this year, Jossy and his family will have to decide whether to replant the peach orchard. For a man who was raised on the farm, began running equipment when he was 10 years old and whose hands have touched nearly every aspect of the process, it’s a grim prospect to face. “They are a difficult tree to grow in Oregon,” Jossy said, “but I didn’t think this would ever happen with the peaches.”