Story, photos and recipes by Cynthia Nobles
Almost every summer I take a quick road trip up to Ruston. The official reason is to visit the final resting places of relatives. It is no coincidence, however, that my annual pilgrimage is always at the beginning of June, when it’s time for Ruston’s Annual Peach Festival. That’s also when the peaches are ripe at the iconic Mitcham Farms.
Ask just about any peach aficionado which fruits have the most flavor, and they will emphatically say that the tastiest come from Ruston. The peaches from this north Louisiana region are typically large and deep-colored. They ooze with juice and smell like a floral perfume.
The soil around the small city and throughout Lincoln Parish contains relatively high amounts of iron ore, which some believe adds to peach flavor. The area’s hills roll gently, and that aids in temperature regulation and drainage. Ruston is also far enough north to provide the required 900-1100 chill hours necessary for high peach quality.
On many a June morning I have rushed to Mitcham Farms at 8:00 a.m., hoping to snatch a bushel or two of freshly-picked peaches. On my last trip, I also bought freshly-churned peach ice cream at the farm’s store. And I talked peaches with the farm’s owner, Joe Mitcham.
Mitcham Farms is just north of Ruston, and is one of Louisiana’s largest peach farms. It began in 1946, when Mitcham’s school-teacher parents bought 300 acres of a cotton plantation for $38 per acre. His father planted the first peach trees in 1947.
Today, Mitcham only plants around 15 acres, which is miniscule compared to the 340 acres his family planted back in the orchard’s heyday, in the 1970s-80s.
“There used to be over 1,000 acres of orchards in Lincoln Parish,” Mitcham says. “Now we’re only a handful of small-acreage farmers.” He lays some of the decline’s blame on production costs and the lack of preferred nursery stock. Then there’s huge competition from big growers in Georgia and California.
“And unseasonal cold snaps keep killing everybody’s tender buds,” Mitcham says. He personally solved that problem in the year 2000, when he purchased 3, two-bladed wind turbine machines that, within their reach, keep temperatures 5 degrees warmer.
“By far, today’s biggest problem,” Mitcham says, “is the lack of chemicals to combat armillaria.” The fungal disease comes from the soil and attacks deep in the tree root systems. Once symptoms of rot appear, it is almost impossible to treat.
Despite his challenges, Mitcham produces succulent peaches from some 1,300 healthy trees that are pruned to 8 feet tall. One mature tree typically produces 6 (25-pound) boxes of fruit.
Mitcham’s peaches are picked by hand. With guidance from seasonal workers, just-ripe fruit is run through a conveyer system that washes, defuzzes, grades, and sorts. Large boxes are packed by machine. Gift boxes of large, perfect peaches are packed by hand. “We sell gift boxes mostly to corporate businesses for client gifts,” Mitcham says. “And that provides most of our income.”
Ruston’s peach season typically runs from late May through the first weeks of August. Some early ripening varieties Mitcham grows are Carored, Desiree, and the richly sweet Flavor Rich. In mid-summer he sells Flavor Crest, Blaze Prince, and Fire Prince. A few of his late-season peaches are Red Globe, July Prince, August Prince, and Ruston Red, a large, sweet cling free developed by LSU.
Even though the number of Ruston’s peach growers is shrinking, consumer desire for the area’s unique crop is as robust as ever. This craving is evident by the long lines at Mitcham’s processing facility during the summer mornings they are open.
“We stopped selling wholesale years ago,” Mitcham says. “So we have plenty of peaches for locals. But we can only pick so many in one day. You just have to get here early!”
With a bushel of Carored clingstone peaches in my back seat, I drove toward Downtown Ruston, where the Peach Festival was in full swing. I stopped to watch the parade then found booths of vendors that sold things like woodworks, unique home décor, handmade fish baits, preserves, bakery treats . . . and peach ice cream.
I hopped back into my car, which was filled with the flowery scent of my recently purchased Mitcham Farms clingstones. I couldn’t wait, so I munched on a peach right then. The fruit’s flavor was like nectar, the way a peach should taste. Sticky juice snaked down my arm, but I didn’t care.
You can visit Mitcham Farms at 1926 Mitcham Orchard Road, Ruston, Louisiana, 71270, phone: 318-255-3409. This year, Ruston’s Louisiana Peach Festival will be held on Saturday, June 3.
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Cynthia Nobles is the cookbook editor for LSU Press and the author/co-author of several historical cookbooks, including A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, The Delta Queen Cookbook, The Jay Ducote Cookbook, and The Fonville Winans Cookbook.
Makes 6 servings
4 cups thinly sliced, unpeeled peaches, or 2 (16-ounce) cans sliced peaches, drained
¼ cup white sugar
¼ cup light brown sugar
1½ teaspoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon almond extract
½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup old-fashioned rolled oats
½ cup light brown sugar
4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
For serving: Vanilla ice cream
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray the insides of an 8x8-inch baking pan with cooking spray. In a large bowl, stir together drained peaches, white sugar, brown sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and almond extract. Pour peach mixture evenly into prepared pan.
2. Add all topping ingredients to a large bowl. Using a fork or your fingers, work the mixture until it’s well combined and resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle topping evenly over the peaches. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 30-35 minutes. Cool at least 15 minutes before serving. Top with vanilla ice cream.
Whole Wheat Peach and Walnut Muffins
Makes 12 standard-sized muffins
Buttermilk, olive oil, and juicy peach chunks make this bakery-style muffin incredibly tender.
1½ cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground cloves, allspice, or pumpkin spice
½ teaspoon iodized salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
⅔ cup buttermilk
⅓ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
1½ cups peeled, chopped peaches, in ½-inch dice
1 cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Line the cups of a standard-sized muffin tin with paper liners. To prevent the tops from sticking to the pan, lightly spray the pan top around the liners with cooking spray.
2. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, and salt. Stir in the sugar, eggs, buttermilk, olive oil, vanilla, and almond extract. When blended well, stir in the peaches and walnuts.
3. In a small bowl, combine the topping ingredients. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tin. Cups should be almost full to the top. Sprinkle each with the topping. Bake until golden brown, about 18-20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and serve warm. Keeps in an airtight container at room temperature 3 days.
Peach Ice Cream
Makes 2 quarts (Adapted from Mitcham Farms Peach Cookbook)
2 pounds fresh, slightly overripe peaches (about 6-8 medium), stones removed
2 cups white sugar
Juice from half a fresh lemon
2 cups heavy whipping cream, very cold
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Puree the peaches. (You should have 3-4 cups.) Put the puree in a large bowl. Stir in sugar and lemon juice. Stir in the cream and vanilla.
2. Pour into an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s directions.
Makes about 3 cups
Good as a dip with tortillas, and also on grilled fish and pork.
4 large peaches, stones removed and diced
1 large ripe tomato, seeds removed and diced
¼ cup minced red onion
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
1 tablespoon finely minced jalapeno pepper
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons white vinegar
Juice from 1 lime
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cumin
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. For best flavor, refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
Cynthia Nobles is the cookbook editor for LSU Press and the author/co-author of several historical cookbooks, including A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, The Delta Queen Cookbook, and The Fonville Winans Cookbook.