CENTRAL POINT — Premier peaches have prompted David Cunningham to visit Beebe Farms every year for the past quarter-century.
"Peaches happen to be my favorite fruit," says the 70-year-old Medford resident. "I just eat the dickens out of 'em."
Beebe Farms, 523 Beebe Road, Central Point, is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday through October with numerous peach varieties available.
He and plenty of other customers will visit Beebe's farm stand through September to purchase Hales, Red Skins, Red Havens, '49ers and Elbertas — peaches that many Rogue Valley residents have recognized for decades as the best of their kind.
"The peaches are so nice," says Central Point resident Marty Tennison. "Even the seconds look good," he says adding that he planned to juice them with oranges, strawberries and pineapples.
Although the peach season set in later than usual this year, local orchards are in full harvest and look to have peaches through September. Peaches range in price from $2.50 per pound for organic peaches at Valley View Orchards in Ashland to 50 cents per pound, U-pick, at Phoenix's Sugar Plum Acres. Beebe's peaches are $1.39 per pound, picked, 79 cents for seconds.
"The past week, they've been coming on really strong," says Beebe farm stand employee Chelsie Banta. "We'll be getting '49ers in and Elbertas, and those are the ones everybody really likes."
Used almost exclusively by Harry and David for gift boxes, '49ers store well and have a high sugar content, says Phil VanBuskirk, administrator of the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point.
Beloved as a canning peach, Elbertas are an heirloom variety that has been dropped by most producers because of its fuzzy skin and a small beak that forms at the fruit's bottom and tends to break off during packing and shipping, which can cause spoilage.
Unlike apples, bananas and oranges, peaches don't travel or store well.
"If I had to name three things you need to buy at a farmers market, peaches would be one of them," says Russ Parsons, author of "How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor From Farm to Table."
"If you really want flavor and good-tasting peaches, you have to buy them local," VanBuskirk says.
Jackson County's 170 acres of peach orchards are worth only about $800,000 anually, hardly a significant crop compared to pears, VanBuskirk says. The Rogue Valley's heavy clay soil isn't particularly suited to stone fruits, but the rockier, better-drained parcels have yielded high-quality peaches since the first orchards were planted here in the mid-1800s, he says.
A century or so later, cheap California fruit — about 60 percent of the total U.S. crop — drove many Rogue Valley peach orchardists out of business, VanBuskirk says. Yet more local, small farmers have become interested in growing fruit trees over the past couple of years, he adds.
"Today, it's all about niches and direct-marketing," he says.
Like many small-scale crops, local peaches can be purchased this month at weekly meetings of the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Medford and Ashland. To pick a peach, look for a background color with a yellow-orangey cast and no green. A golden color is a sign of maturity, which means sugar has built up inside the fruit. The red blush on a peach is no indication of ripeness but a result of genetics.
Next, trust your nose. A ripe peach has a penetrating fragrance that you should be able to smell from across the room. Softness is least important. A firm peach will ripen on the counter in a few days, and it's better to have one that's a bit firm than one that's soft and bruised.
Be sure not to refrigerate peaches until they are fully ripe. A mealy, dry texture is a sign of chill damage.
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.