Califonia Bountiful

Life's a peach

January/February 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Many a pie gets its start in Kulwant Johl's orchard

Kulwant Johl's orchards have produced peaches for more than three decades. Photo by Ching Lee

Another successful growing season for Yuba County farmer Kulwant Johl is in the can—as in, the can of peaches you might have picked up at the store the other day.

Johl grows peaches for canning, as well as walnuts, in his orchards along Highway 70 north of Marysville. His family has been farming in California for 96 years; Johl bought the property he's farming now in 1987 and has been growing peaches there nearly as long. He serves on the board of the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau and was its president from 2006-09.

Most canning peaches are of the clingstone variety, meaning the fruit tends to cling to the pit. (The fresh peaches you bought last summer were likely freestone peaches, which more easily separate from the pit.) Johl's orchards number among the 16,000 acres of clingstone peaches grown in California in 2018, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

Family heritage
Johl's grandfather, Nand Singh Johl, moved from India to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1906. From there, he moved to Bellingham, Wash., then to California, where he and four fellow Indian immigrants worked in railroad construction. "That's how he reached Yuba City," Johl said. When the five friends arrived, "a farmer asked if they wanted to work for him—he could give them yearlong work and a place to stay," Johl said. "He and those other four guys, they were the first Indians in Yuba City."

He couldn't do what? Why?
At the time Nand Singh Johl started farming, he couldn't buy land, his grandson said. Reason: the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which forbade people ineligible for U.S. citizenship from owning land. So the elder Johl started farming rice with an American partner. In 1946, when the restriction was loosened, Nand Singh Johl was able to buy his first peach orchard, blazing the trail his grandson follows today.

Winter work
What's happening in the orchards now? A lot of hard work. Johl and his team typically spend the winter pruning branches and guarding against fungus and insect incursions. Around March, trees will start to bloom. Beginning around late March or early April, those blossoms will start to turn into peaches.

Too much of a good thing
Yes, you can have too many peaches. After the fruit starts forming, Johl's crews work to make sure the trees aren't overloaded. "You have to hand-thin them, make them 5 to 6 inches apart," Johl said. "If you leave all the peaches on the tree, they will be very small, and the branches cannot hold that much weight and they will break."

Making the grade
A clingstone peach's first stop after harvest is a receiving station, where U.S. Department of Agriculture employees inspect the fruit and assign a grade. That could be Fancy, Extra No. 1, No. 1 or No. 2, depending on its condition upon arrival. Next stop is the cannery—and processors don't waste any time. "Canning peaches will be in the can within 24 hours" of leaving the orchard, Johl said.

Vitamin C(an)
That rapid canning, Johl said, holds in the nutrients. "You pick the peaches when they are just ripe," he said. Because of that, canned peaches bring plenty of health benefits to your pantry: antioxidants, vitamins A and C, and folate, according to the California Cling Peach Board. Not a bad addition to your pie and cobbler, two desserts Johl named as prime uses of his fruit.

Savoring his work
Farming may be hard work, but the intangibles aren't lost on this longtime peach farmer. "It's a beautiful fruit to grow," Johl said. "When you walk in the peach orchard and peaches are ripe, it's a beautiful scene—the way it smells, the way it looks."

Kevin Hecteman

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