Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 11, 2013

SALISBURY — As he trots down a row of his orchard, Kevin Huffman reaches up frequently to test the ripeness of peaches.

If the peach is soft, especially at the base, it’s time to be picked. But the rock hard peaches have to stay on the tree a while longer.

He likes to sell only tree-ripened peaches.

All around Huffman, the limbs are bending from the weight of fruit. Every other day now, two contract pickers are taking over 30 to 35 bushels off the trees and trucking them up to the barn, where two graders inspect them before they are placed into the appropriate boxes, separated by size and price.

In about a week and half, Huffman will have seven people in the orchard at 4825 Goodman Lake Road, picking every day, as his various varieties ripen in succession.

By then, 80 to 100 bushels a day will be coming out of the orchard.

Some of the peaches on Huffman’s trees seem as big as grapefruits.

In a business so fickle, you hate to say something like this out loud — but this looks to be a banner year for peaches.

It’s as though all the rain we’ve had has been soaked up directly by the fruit on trees.

Orchard owners know that two to three years out of every five they might not have a peach crop at all.

“It’s like playing the stock market, maybe worse,” Huffman says.

But a combination of things have worked to the advantage of Huffman’s Peaches and other growers this year. There was a mild winter, combined with a late cold snap that actually helped with the necessary thinning of trees.

In Huffman’s case and others, it probably pushed back the first available peaches by two weeks, meaning the season could now go at least until Labor Day.

The rain has helped, too. George Hipp, who has a peach orchard at 2036 Woodleaf Road with his brothers John and Harry, says he can’t remember seeing this many leaves on the trees, and they’re often hiding a lot of fruit.

“I have never seen it this wet,” Huffman adds. “In January it started raining, and it hasn’t stopped yet.”

Save a monsoon’s coming and damaging the whole orchard, Huffman expects to have his best year in peach production. The N.C. Department of Agriculture has heard similar reports from other growers.

In North Carolina, peaches represent a $6.22 million commodity. For the past three years, there have been about 1,100 acres in peach orchards, yielding between 4.82 and 5 tons of peaches per acre.

The N.C. Field Office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture says North Carolina had utilized production in 2012 of 5,150 tons.

But to show you how that can fluctuate with the weather. The state had only 650 tons of peaches in 2007.

Montgomery County ranks as the highest in peach production, followed by Anson, Moore, Cleveland and Alexander.

Huffman, who has about 1,000 trees on 5 acres, considers himself mid-range in size among North Carolina’s growers. He will be doubling in size next year when he brings in a new orchard of 1,100 trees, also along Goodman Lake Road.

The Hipps off Woodleaf Road have about 450 trees.

Huffman planted his first peach trees 17 years ago, and this is his 14th year of trying to bring the fragile crop to harvest.

“I just got it in my head I wanted a peach orchard,” says Huffman, who also tends to a herd of 80 red Angus cattle.

He has constantly tried different varieties of peaches, looking for those that bear up in the cold and still have a lot of flavor. He rattles off the names of 13 varieties among his first 1,000 trees, from Red Haven and Claytons, the varieties he is picking now, to Contender, Sun Prince and Sweet Sue.

The new orchard coming on line next year has eight additional varieties. Huffman sometimes works with N.C. State University professors, who ask him to plant test plots of new varieties.

Huffman thinks N.C. peaches, especially those grown around here, are great-tasting and best for you because of all the minerals and nutrients coming out of the red, clay soil.

A Clayton peach from South Carolina, he says, tastes completely different from a Clayton peach in North Carolina.

Huffman sells his peaches wholesale to several local places, including Father & Son Produce, Wetmore Farms, Patterson Farm Market and Mike Miller.

He’ll also trade his peaches for other produce.

This week Joyce Parsons traded tomatoes, for example, from her Hillcrest Farm in Davidson County. She said when her customers know the peaches are grown close by, they’ll immediately buy them, and with Huffman’s, “I know what a good product they have.”

Terry Osborne bought peaches from Huffman’s on Sunday and returned Tuesday. “What’s neat here is, he has so many different varieties,” Osborne says.

Huffman, 55, worked an entirely separate career with companies such as Fowler Motors, Power Curbers and, for almost 25 years before its Concord plant closed, Philip Morris.

In April 2012, he bounced back within six weeks from triple bypass heart surgery.

The tough part for Huffman and his wife, Ellen, who handles much of the retail operation at the barn, is living next to the orchard.

It’s not uncommon for people to knock on their door at 8 and 9 at night looking to buy peaches.

The Huffmans have quietly built a following. Besides their local customers, visitors from Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio will drop by once a season to take four to six bushels home for canning and freezing.

Workers started picking the first peaches June 18 and Huffman expects to have peaches through Labor Day. On picking days, the barn next to Kevin and Ellen Huffman’s house is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (or until the peaches run out).

Upcoming picking days are today, Saturday and next Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The Hipps rely on their customers to look for their sign along Woodleaf Road to know when their peaches are ready.

“There will be a pretty good crop,” George Hipp promises.

In other words, the stock market is up.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or