Dale Ham was a fireman in Richardson until 1979, when he came home from work one day and told his wife, Judy, he wanted to grow peach trees instead. The couple bought 23 acres of land just east of Terrell, planted 400 trees, and crossed their fingers. Their first peaches were loaded into a truck and sold at a roadside stand by the railroad tracks on Highway 80.
Today, the enterprise has expanded to 10,000 trees on 100 acres at Ham Orchards. They have a full-service store and bakery, and peach lovers travel here from all around Texas to buy pies, jellies, jams, preserves, butters, salad dressings, and chutneys.
During the course of the season—which, in North Texas, runs from mid-April until early September—grocery stores and local markets are filled with baskets of Texas peaches. Individual farmers customize their growing season by planting specific varieties. The Hams begin harvesting in mid-May and end on August 15, growing between 35 and 45 varieties of peaches.
Generally, you can choose from yellow or white peaches (yellow are the most common in North Texas). There are two kinds: cling and freestone. Cling peaches are the first to ripen each year and the meat of the fruit clings to the pit. They are better for eating than cooking because of the labor it takes to separate the meat from the pit. When you slice or bite into a freestone peach, the pit pops out. Freestones are perfect for canning and making jellies and jams.
Peaches are at their prime in July and August. The color deepens, as does the sugar content. Look for Red Skin, Dixiland, Cresthaven, Red Globe, Bounty, and Loring. Loring peaches are enormous—some more than three inches in diameter—and a high sugar content makes them perfect for pies and cobblers or garnishing a salad.
If you shop for peaches in a grocery store and are unsure what kind of peach is sitting in the bin, ask for the produce manager. If they don’t know the difference between cling and freestone, have them slice one open. Your chances for a free taste before you buy are better if you buy from a local farmer or farmers market.
If you plan to use your peaches immediately, choose dark red, semi-soft peaches. It’s better to buy them softer and more often. By choosing lighter-colored, rock-hard peaches and waiting for them to soften, you risk ending up with less of the juicy, sweet flavor.