Vernon Thompson reckons farmers along U.S. 701 south of Four Oaks have been growing and selling peaches for a century.
He hasn’t been at it quite that long, taking up peach growing in 1985 on two acres of family land. Seven years later, he opened a roadside stand at 4301 U.S. 701 South, selling mainly peaches but also blueberries, cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, watermelon, zucchini and other produce, along with jams, jellies, pickles and preserves.
The best sellers remain the peaches.
“Peaches sell well here,” Thompson said. “But they require a lot of attention.”
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That attention includes pruning, constant spraying to thwart weeds and pests, and then thinning the growing peaches to ensure that enough will reach maturity.
“People always want stuff natural and without chemicals,” Thompson said, shaking his head. “But with peaches, that’s impossible. Impossible.”
Peaches are a finicky fruit, so Thompson is at the orchard’s beck and call. And when he’s not in the orchard, he’s protecting his other crops against coyotes, foxes, squirrels, raccoons, wild hogs and other hungry critters.
“Coyotes will get into your corn,” Thompson said. “They like the sweet corn. So do the foxes. And coyotes will punch holes in your watermelon.”
This year, the weather took the greatest toll on Thompson’s peach crop. “It froze this spring, so we lost most of them,” he said.
Thompson said about 10,000 people stop at his roadside stand each year, with weekends easily drawing 200 people a day. Many of his customers are fellow Johnston County residents, but others come from all over.
“They stop by on their way to the lake or the beach,” Thompson said. “Some go out of their way to stop.”
The 200 trees in his orchard will yield some 500 to 600 bushels each season.
Thompson and his wife, Patricia, tend the peaches and harvest them with help from friend Barbara Fail and her son, Jacob. This year is Barbara’s 11th summer with the Thompsons.
The peach season lasts about 11 weeks, and for every one of those 77 or so days, the Thompsons and their helpers spend about four hours picking only the freshest of peaches.
“When they pick them in California, they have to pick them while they’re still a little green in order to ship them,” Thompson said. “But they never taste right when you pick them that early. We pick them when they’re perfect yellow on the underside.”
From the orchard, the peaches make the short trip to the roadside stand, a small building with an awning shading the produce, an ancient cash register, a credit-card reader and scales for weighing the fruits and vegetables. At the stand, the Thompsons, Barbara and Jacob wear bright T-shirts with “Life’s a Peach” on the back.
Fruits and vegetables are his mainstays, but Thompson’s specialty is peach ice cream. He won’t divulge the secret family recipe, saying only that the ice cream is made mostly of pureed peaches, milk, sugar and other ingredients. The result: an ice cream that’s barely peach in color but full of flecks of fruit. His wife’s lineup of preserves includes sweet pickled peaches. Thompson’s favorite is his wife’s peach cobbler.
“With vanilla ice cream and just warm enough that the ice cream starts to melt a little,” he said.
Thompson retired from his day job, with CenturyLink, in 2008, but peaches are his passion, and he plans to keep growing them until he “just can’t anymore.”
“It keeps me young,” he said.
His wife, however, could have given up the chore long ago.
“If I ever die, she’d push the trees right up,” Thompson said, laughing. “She promised me that. But I’m working as hard as I want right now.”
While thousands enjoy his peaches every year, Thompson said he wishes more people appreciated freshly grown food.
“Some people pull up and complain about the price,” he said. “But they don’t appreciate what it takes to make fresh food. They don’t understand how much work goes into it.
“I love growing things. It’s how I was raised. But you have to do it right or not do it at all.”
Last week, peaches at his stand were $4 per tray, $6 per quarter peck, $9 for half a peck and $16 for a peck. Ice cream was $3 for a 10-ounce cup or $9 for 32 ounces.
The stand is open most weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Saturdays from 9 a.m to 6 p.m. and on Sundays from 1-6 p.m. But the schedule can change from week to week, and hours vary based on availability. For a more exact schedule and for more information, go to www.facebook.com/thompsonorchards.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett