The COVID-19 pandemic has made life anything but peachy for Carrie and Mark Schnepf, but the Queen Creek farmers aren’t about to let it destroy one of their favorite times of the year.
In a week or so, Schnepf Farms will be letting the public into its peach orchard – Arizona’s largest with 5,000 trees – but with some new rules appropriate to this age of social distancing.
Until last year, the Schnepfs held a Peach Festival every May to celebrate the advent of the ripened fruit.
But even before “social distancing” became part of everyday vocabulary, the Schnepfs saw a need for crowd control, so “we quit the Peach Festival last year because it was just getting too big for us to do anymore and we couldn’t make sure we had peaches on the trees every time,” said Carrie.
“So, now we’re doing peach season come on every weekend,” she said.
Through most of last May, Mark estimates, between 40,000 and 50,000 people flocked to Schnepf Farms at 24810 E. Rittenhouse Road, to wander through the orchard and pick as many peaches as they wanted.
Before the change, Mark said, “We had too many people coming on one weekend. And so we stopped doing it to help spread out the crowd over four or five weekends and it worked brilliantly. We loved it. We still did everything in terms of all the baking and that kind of stuff, but it just worked out a lot better because we didn’t have 10,000 people all in one day.”
This year, with social distancing still a necessity, the Schnepfs are giving people two ways to get a hold of their succulent fruit.
From Tuesday through Sunday, they can sign up at schnepffarms.com for a one-hour chance to pick their own starting at 6 a.m.
“There’s going to be a reservation system for a date and a time where people can come and pick,” Mark explained, “So, for instance, where before we might have 1,000 people showing up at the same time, we’re now going to have a reservation system …we will allow 10 cars and 10 cars only to drive out to the orchard to pick peaches and when they’re gone, there will be a new group that is allowed in. That way, we can completely control the number of people that are in the orchard at any one time.”
People also will be able to go online at schnepffarms.com to place an order for pre-picked peaches.
“We’ll be picking the peaches ourselves with our crew and boxing them in our regular peach boxes and, like we do now with our vegetables, people will be able to pre-order and prepay online and then literally drive through and pick up the box or boxes. That will be kind of a time situation too, so depending on what time of day they place their order will depend on when they can actually come and pick them up.
“We’ll pick peaches in the morning on one day. And if we have, say, 300 boxes of peaches, then that’s what we’ll put online the next morning as available so we don’t oversell. People won’t be able to just drive to the farm on the spur of the moment and buy a bunch of boxes of peaches.”
The Schnepfs aren’t sure exactly when the peaches will be ready for picking or picking up and said people should start checking their website daily for updates.
“We want everyone to have that experience of picking their own peaches off our peach trees, but we literally can get a couple thousand at one time, so we have to be careful this year,” Mark added.
But he didn’t simply go to a drive-through system like he’s been using the past several weeks for the other vegetables he grows and the breads, cinnamon rolls, pies and other baked goods that Carrie and her team make each day and sell from their on-site country store.
For more than a month now, Carrie each morning posts on the website what’s available, so people can order and prepay and just drive through to pick up their order Thursday through Sunday from 9 a.m. To 4 p.m. Some people are still allowed to wander onto the farm and pick available vegetables themselves, Mark said, but social distancing rules still apply.
Peach season holds a special fondness for Mark, who with his wife over the years has turned the farm into the state’s biggest grower of the fruit – an accomplishment in which he takes great pride.
“When I was a kid. There were fruit orchards all over the place and they’re just all gone,” he said.
Asked what’s so special about peaches, he replied, “Because they’re beautiful, first of all. I mean, the orchards are beautiful. They’re shady, they’re quiet, the fruit is so nice to look at.
“But then it just tastes so doggone good. We don’t pick until it’s ripe. I mean it just has amazing flavor. You know, I’m not bashing any grocery store but grocery stores have to pick the fruit green in order to give it a two-week shelf life. We don’t do that at the farm. We let it tree-ripen so it has more sugar, more flavor.”
The pandemic has put the season and the farm under the same cloud most businesses have been under since social-distancing guidelines were imposed.
One of the biggest impacts has been on the farm’s wedding business.
“We had 48 weddings postponed,” Carrie said. “That was the tough. We already had the food purchased. I had a freezer full of meat.”
“Our event business has come to a screeching halt. The Good Life Festival has been postponed for a year.”
For the first time since they started their Easter “Egg-Citement event on their 300-acre farm 23 years ago, the Schnepfs had to cancel.
The couple is thinking of inaugurating some special activities if social distancing goes on much longer – including drive-in movies and even drive-through graduations.
“What is doing well is our UPICK Garden,” said Carrie, who said at least people can pick up fresh vegetables and baked goods and then “stay at home, enjoy themselves, slow down.”