WINEDALE — Scott Willey answered the phone at his office one day about seven years ago when yet another person called wanting to know about fruit production.
Relatively new on the job as Fayette County agent for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Willey had noted the growing interest and was trying to figure out how to address the educational needs of county residents.
But this call was different.
On the line was Barbara White, site manager at the Winedale Historical Center, a 225-acre complex with restored houses and barns. Part of the University of Texas-Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the Winedale facility was given more than 50 years ago by Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg, daughter of former Texas Gov. James Hogg. The structures showcase the architecture, furniture and lifestyle of early Texas. Every summer, the complex houses University of Texas drama students who produce various Shakespearean plays for the public.
It was all very quaint and fitting for the University of Texas, White acknowledged, except for one thing: they knew nothing about agriculture and needed help for their ailing fruit orchard.
“Our orchard was aging, and we wanted some education on how to manage it,” White said.
Willey ventured out to Winedale and spotted two things: declining fruit trees in the yard of the Wagner house and a rustic barn filled with folding chairs sitting idle except during the summer Shakespearean productions.
“They had an old orchard and were trying to revamp it to make it look like it would have back in the day,” Willey said of the Winedale center. “When I saw the property, I realized it would be great for a big fruit tree program complete with hands-on demonstrations and educational programs that were needed by so many.”
A handshake sealed the partnership that now has spun a bushel of educational events for fruit growing enthusiasts, while propping up the plantings at the Winedale location, the duo said. About 150 people from Fayette and surrounding counties attended this year’s seminar, which included a pruning demonstration for the year-old trees.
For his part, Willey connected with his agency’s horticulturist in College Station, Monte Nesbitt, who in turn brought in Dr. David Byrne, a peach breeder in College Station from sister agency Texas A&M AgriLife Research.
“We do a fruit tree educational program here every year since a lot of people are interested. These days, people with busy lives maybe can’t give as much attention to fruit trees as they would like,” said Nesbitt. “We have a seminar in the spring to show them how.”
To provide the hands-on experience for the annual event, Nesbitt noted, the team devised a plan to match what might have been typical plantings in the early 1800s when the homes at Winedale were built but with newer varieties more adapted to current conditions. Facts about peach trees
Facts about peach trees
“Most old homes would have had fruit plantings for home use, such as canning and eating fresh,” Nesbitt said. “So we took out the old trees that were in bad shape and planted new trees in the spring and fall of 2015.”
In their second growing season, the nearly 20 different experimental varieties of peaches are doing well, Nesbitt said, and are expected to yield some fruit this spring.
“Peaches are one of the most popular tree fruits for Texas. We can grow peaches in most areas of the state, having a wide number of varieties that are available for different chilling regions,” he added. “So due to the popular demand, we’ve established a peach orchard here for teaching purposes.”
Additionally, the team planted peach, pear, persimmons, pomegranate, fig and jujube, also known as Chinese date, trees in the backyard of the restored Wagner home to simulate a typical early 1800s home planting, he said.
“What we’ve tried to do is find those types of fruit trees that are appropriate for this part of the Texas,” he added.
Nesbitt said while the Texas fruit industry has declined in some of the traditional tree crops — peaches in particular dropping some 50 percent in the last 15 years — there is “tremendous demand for Texas-grown fruits.”
He said aging growers who’ve retired from the business and problems with frosts or freezes — which now have additional management tools to prevent — were largely the cause for the decline.
“Produce managers in our supermarkets tell us that they’re interested in purchasing Texas-grown fruit,” Nesbitt said. “The locally grown fruit food movement in Texas is huge and particularly large in urban areas. So there are challenges for growing fruit trees without a doubt, but we think there are opportunities to get back and replant some of these traditional fruits that we enjoy.”
“This place is a way for us to take some of the research from the Texas A&M University land-grant system and put it in the public’s hands,” Willey said. “We use it to demonstrate some of the latest research, or proper techniques or whatever the particular subject might be, and hopefully they will take it home and improve their lives at the end of the day.”
“We’re very excited about the partnership, the orchard and the information the specialists bring for the annual seminar,” White said. “Little did I know that from that phone call years ago, this was going to expand this way.”