If you’ve never taken a bite of a juicy, sweet, tree-ripened peach on a hot summer day, you’re in for a treat. The Morgan family in Lamar has been growing peaches in Arkansas for five generations, and every summer, they invite the public to come pick and sample the fruits of their labor.
“Grocery store peaches are picked firm so they can travel,” says Mark Morgan, a fifth-generation peach grower at Peach Pickin’ Paradise. “We have the benefit of being able to leave our peaches on the tree until they soften and get their sugar. People can come pick peaches and eat them the same day. It’s a completely different product than what you find in a store.”
Morgan co-owns the peach orchard with his dad, Steve, and they grow more than 20 varieties of peaches and nectarines on 3,500 trees.
Mark Morgan’s grandparents, George and Geraldine Morgan, started the pick-your-own peach orchard in 1977. The idea was relatively new in Arkansas, as most orchards were pack-and- ship at the time.
“People in the industry scratched their heads and wondered how my grandpa would get people to come out and pick all these peaches,” Morgan says. “But he did it by staying open seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and building relationships with people so they developed many repeat customers.”
Agritourism in Arkansas
The Morgans are one of many Arkansas farm families who have discovered a demand for agritourism, a growing form of tourism that encourages visitors to take part in on-the-farm activities. In the 2012 Census of
Agriculture, 389 Arkansas farms reported some kind of agritourism enterprise, from roadside stands to pumpkin patches.
“Agritourism is very valuable because of the educational and recreational benefits it provides,” says Cynthia Edwards, deputy secretary of agriculture for the Arkansas Agriculture Department. “People who are one or two generations removed from the farm enjoy having that hands-on connection to agriculture. People rave about the experience and what they learn when they visit a farm.”
The fruit crop industry has been a leader in the agritourism movement, thanks to the abundance of pick-your-own operations. But that’s only the beginning.
“People who have never been on a dairy farm love seeing how cows are milked,” Edwards says. “Others want to see how cotton, rice or other row crops are grown because they’ve heard stories from previous generations. People today want to know where their food comes from. Agritourism helps them make those connections.”
Fun On The Farm
Back at Peach Pickin’ Paradise, Morgan says the No. 1 thing that draws people to their farm is the unbeatable quality and taste of the peaches.
“It’s also a fun family experience. We’re thankful when we see parents and grandparents bringing their kids out,” he says. “Many grandparents worked picking peaches in the 1950s and ’60s, and they enjoy sharing that with their grandkids. We like to put smiles on faces.”
In 2015, the Morgans became involved with Arkansas’s Farm to School program. Two Rivers School District bought 16 bushels of fresh peaches, which they sliced and froze so students would be able to enjoy fresh fruit for lunch year round.
“My dad and I are very proud of that, and we hope to expand that program into more schools,” Morgan says.
Meanwhile, the sixth generation of peach growers celebrated her first birthday in October 2015. Mark and his wife, Shay, have a 1-year-old daughter, Kate.
“It’s pretty cool being able to work with my dad, my stepmom Carol, my brother James, and my grandma Geraldine, who is still involved,” he says. “And now we have Kate crawling around.”
While it’s still early to determine what career path Kate will choose, Mark has a couple of ideas.
“We hope she’ll end up performing brain surgeries,” he jokes. “But if she wants to grow peaches, that’s all right with me.”