Fredericksburg peach growers prepare business for next generation.
Otto and Antonia Eckhardt sold their first peach in 1936. Now 85 years later, the third generation of Eckhardts is growing the family legacy with financing from Capital Farm Credit.
Operated by Dianne Eckhardt and her sister, Debbie Cox, Eckhardt Orchards is the oldest commercial peach operation in Gillespie County.
Known for quality as well as longevity, the family orchards draw customers from as far away as Oklahoma and New Mexico.
“Peaches are in our blood,” Dianne says. “It’s a labor of love.”
Tough, but good life
Dianne will be the first to admit growing peaches is a complicated, hard business. It’s labor-intensive, year-round work pruning, spraying and cultivating their 2,500 trees. And that’s before picking ever starts, which is all done by hand.
The Eckhardts only pick peaches at the peak of ripeness so each one is perfect. It’s not a u-pick operation.
At the height of the season, crews pick about 50 bushels of freestone peaches a day. The season runs May through September, seven days a week.
“Peaches make people happy,” says Dianne. “What’s better than that?”
And if the sisters have their way, Eckhardt peaches will be available well into the fall. Dianne continually experiments with new varieties that ripen late in the year. Currently, they grow about 20 varieties on their 50 acres of orchards.
Partners in growth
“Dianne came to us in 2019 with the goal of making the business sustainable,” says Jason Helfrich, relationship manager. “Since then we’ve partnered to improve and grow their operation.”
The Eckhardts used their mixed loan to purchase more acres, plant new trees and install an irrigation system.
“People at Capital know farming and ranching and understand what it takes to succeed,” Dianne says. “They’re always responsive. They’ve been great to work with. And the patronage check is wonderful.”
Good neighbors, stronger community
The family legacy may have begun with peaches, but it’s branching out. They also grow pears, persimmons and plums. And they’ll be planting apricot and fig trees soon to increase sales.
In addition, the Eckhardts are growing their neighbors’ businesses. They sell fruit and vegetables from area farms at the Eckhardt roadside store. Customers can also purchase goat cheese, jams and jellies, and homemade ice cream — all made locally. And what’s the best-selling ice cream flavor? Peach.
“If it’s local, we love carrying it,” Dianne adds.
Challenging times, more sales
Unlike many businesses, Eckhardt Orchards didn’t suffer the ill effects of the pandemic or last winter’s severe weather. More urbanites are flocking to the country after being stuck at home so long. And they buy peaches.
In addition, this winter’s storm produced a bumper crop. Peach trees need freezing weather to lie dormant. Without this rest period, buds set the previous summer can’t bloom. No blossoms – no fruit. But thankfully, peaches are plentiful.
Dianne and Debbie are positioning the orchards so the fourth generation can take over one day. Debbie’s 12-year-old son, Quentin, and 10-year-old twins, Evelyn and Jordan, have been hanging out at the orchard with Grandpa Donald and Grandma Carol since they were preschoolers. “They love every minute of it,” Debbie adds.
And when asked how the business has succeeded for so many years, Donald says, “It takes willpower, determination and good old German stubbornness.”