by Terry Kramer
FOR MORE THAN 40 YEARS VERN YOUNG HAS GROWN peaches on his nine acres in Willow Creek, and he can tell you just about everything you want to know about growing fruit in Humboldt County.
Any time of the year you will find the 70-year-old retired school teacher climbing up and down ladders, on hips replaced in 1984, tending his peach trees.
"I like things to happen and I like to be productive and I like to see things grow and I like fruit and vegetables. This is my hobby," he said. "I also do it for the extra money. It takes care of my health insurance. Boy that's high now, around 400 a month," he said.
Born and raised in Willow Creek, Young said he's worked in fruit orchards since high school, when at that time it was necessary to help with the family income. After graduation from college, Young and his wife settled in Willow Creek and planted an orchard of their own.
"We started here in '55, and at one time I had at least 25 varieties of peaches. Some were good for commercial and some had split pits and were more susceptible to disease. So now I have picked out nine of the best varieties that would come on at intervals so that I wouldn't be having them all on at once," he said.
Among the varieties Young grows are golden Monarch, Red Haven, Kim Elberta, Roza, Suncrest, Rio Oso and 49er, in addition to the old-fashioned Elberta.
Each summer he hawks his peaches at the farmers' markets and at his orchard. He scuffs his dusty boots at the dry rock-laden soil that feeds his peach orchard and says that after 40 years he's learned some about growing peaches.
"There are three things that people want in peaches. They want 'em large. They want 'em juicy and they want 'em sweet. So that is what my goal is," he said. When you sink your teeth into one of Young's peaches the sweet juice drips uncontrollably down your chin.
Young estimates that he has about 300 peach trees on three acres. This summer he plans to harvest 50 lugs of peaches early every morning until the end of August. Harvesting peaches is the reward of an entire year's worth of hard work. Proper pruning is necessary to good fruit production.
"I start the first of November and prune until the first of March. I prune every good day I feel good and when it isn't raining. I don't prune in the rain any more.
"When I was teaching school I had to prune in the rain to get through in time. However, I would have never finished my 33 years of teaching had it not been for my frustrations taken out on the trees," he laughs. (Young taught junior high school mathematics for years.)
Young prunes his trees so that the crotches are quite low to the ground. This makes picking easier. Trees are pruned into an open vase structure that sheds sunlight on the tree's fruit. "It's the sunshine that puts the sugar in the fruit," he explained.
Since Young doesn't have time to prop the fruit-laden branches, he instead takes baling rope and ties it around the perimeter of each tree so that the limbs support each other. At the age of 70, Young can prune three trees an hour, removing two thirds of the volume of each tree at a time.
"Growing peaches is too much work for most people," he said quietly.
Spraying peach trees is also necessary if a decent harvest is expected, according to Young.
"I can't raise them organically. I've had a whole crop destroyed within two weeks from rain and rot. The problem is the leaf curl. If you get the leaf curl out of the peaches they turn out real healthy.
"Most of the people today are organic farmers. I try to be as organic as I can, but I've had so many failures. It is tough to work all these peaches all winter and spring and then in two weeks have a rain storm come in and cause you to lose the whole crop. I've had that happen a few times. I can't do that -- I have to be productive," he said.
While Young must resort to chemical spray to keep his peaches healthy, he does not put spray directly on the fruit. "I don't spray anything on the fruit if I can help it. I spray dormantly and I spray trees up to the chuck stage. That is when the little fruits are just coming through the blossom," he explained.
Other time-consuming chores include thinning fruit and irrigating the trees during the summer.
While peaches are Young's speciality, he also grows nectarines, cherries, apples, pears, persimmons and grapes. This year he also plans to sell lugs of vine-ripened tomatoes and melons.
With the help of his daughter and grandchildren, Young enjoys his retirement years farming in Willow Creek instead of traveling. "There isn't any place better. You get the beautiful hills, the trees and the mountains. I have the four seasons and I'm only 45 minutes to the ocean. Right now it is good times for us. Just good times. There are peaches hanging everywhere," he smiled.
Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.