For The Love Of Apples: Trees And Trellises At Billy Bob Orchards

By / Photography By Coco Morante | October 12, 2015
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apple trellises

Nestled behind the family homestead on Green Valley Road are Billy Bob Orchards’ 10 picturesque acres of apple trees. Certified organic since 1999, it’s one of a handful of small, family-owned orchards left in the Pajaro Valley. Bill Peixoto grew up in the house at the front of the property—in the Peixoto family since 1957—and he runs the orchard today. His son Zac lives just a few minutes down the road and handles the retail side of the business.

Most of the apple orchards in Watsonville are large non-organic operations catering primarily to the wholesale market. Bill and Zac, on the other hand, sell directly to Bay Area consumers, with the help of cousins and close family friends selling the apples at nine farmers markets, including the flagship location in Mountain View.

During harvest season from late August through December the Peixotos hire a small team of local, skilled pickers to twist the ripest specimens from the trees and gently place them into bins, sometimes going as far as trimming down the stems, which can poke and damage other apples. Apples that aren’t quite ready are left to ripen longer—a single tree will be picked over about three times to ensure the fruit is harvested at its best.

To determine when the apples are ready, Bill tests for three main factors: starch, sugar and pressure, and of course, taste for good measure. Once harvested, the apples are brought to the packing line, housed in a barn, which sorts the apples on a conveyer belt from largest to smallest.

A normal year’s harvest would be about 400 bins, or 200 tons, however this year has been far from normal, and it’s not because of the drought. The low yields are owed to another environmental factor: the warm winter weather. Bill says, “All deciduous fruit trees need chilling hours, so many hours under 45°. Then if it goes over 75° in the daytime, it discounts the nighttime temperatures. If you took December and January, which are usually our two coldest months . . . if you think back to how hot it was, it was crazy.”

The taste and quality of the apples will remain the same as in seasons past, but the yields will be smaller, and the size of the fruits is unpredictable. “We’re going to have to move more of the sizes that people don’t normally want, but it’s just going to be what we have, you know,” says Zac. They will still have plenty of varieties on offer, including Jonagold, Empire, Pink Lady, Mutsu, Pippin and Gala.

In order to increase yields, and make more efficient use of their limited space, Bill has been experimenting for the last five years with trellis systems using large wires supported by a metal A-frame structure. The trees are planted much closer together than a traditional orchard, just three feet apart (versus around 17 feet), and as they grow, their branches are supported by the wires.

“You don’t want them to get too big. The roots compete, and then they’re dwarfing rootstocks . . . these actually need support because they would fall over or you’d have to take the apples off of ’em. You plant a conventional orchard, you’re gonna try and grow the trees big, since you need big limbs to carry the apples. Well, I don’t—because the wires carry the apples.”

It’s a very clever setup, and how most apple orchards are being planted globally nowadays. With a density of about 1,000 trees per acre, the trellised plots should yield up to three times as many apples as the traditionally planted rows. Harvesting from these trees is also easier on the pickers, Zac explains, “You don’t need ladders as much, since everything is growing out instead of up.”

Besides Bill and Zac, there’s Luis Callejas, Bill’s right hand man. He’s been working for Bill for the last five years, helping him to build the trellis systems, water the trees, apply calcium and other organic enrichments to the soil and implement whatever other plans Bill has for the orchard. “You know Billy, he always has an idea,” says Luis.

There aren’t many of these small, independently owned orchards remaining in the area, much less ones that are certified organic and run by such an innovative, dedicated family of farmers. Bill is one of seven siblings raised in the area, and six of them are involved in (or retired from) agriculture. Once Bill retires, Zac plans to keep growing here. “I’d like to have someone like Luis, working together, same kind of thing.”

And it takes a lot of dedicated work to keep the orchard going and bring the fruit to appreciative fans all over the Bay Area. A labor of love from the Peixoto family. 

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