The Last Chance Peach

October hardly seems like peach season, but then the desert between the Grapevine and Bakersfield hardly seems like peach country unless you're a fan of the Last Chance peach, a relatively new variety that is rapidly growing in popularity.

From an initial harvest of about 25,000 pounds in 1985, an average of about 750,000 pounds is now being shipped all over the country.

Shoppers appreciate the peach's high color and juicy, sweet flesh--both oddities in late-harvest peach varieties. But the real reason the fruit is called Last Chance has nothing to do with the time of year it's harvested, says Dale Robbins of Valley Pride Marketing, the company that has pushed the peach to the forefront.

The peach, a "sport" or genetic freak, was discovered by the late Jim Sprague of tiny Neenach, Calif.

"One year the tree just sprung up in his garden," says Robbins. "He chopped it down, but the next year it came back. He chopped it down again and still it came back. He finally said, 'All right, I'm going to give you one last chance in life.' About three years later it bore fruit, and that's the Last Chance peach."

So far, no one has been able to determine exactly what genetic stock the peach comes from, but that didn't stop Sprague and others from growing it.

"He took it to a nursery, and they propagated 300,000 starts," says Robbins. "They sold them to a lot of L.A. investors." Out of those, Robbins says there are probably 120,000 trees still producing, grown by 11 farmers.

The biggest of these is Peachland Farms, a 200-acre spread owned by Joe and Joyce Whiteside in the Antelope Valley. They got into the Last Chance business through their next-door neighbor, Sprague. "We had no idea we were going into the peach business," says Joyce Whiteside. "But Mr. Sprague gave us some, and it tasted pretty good, so we just started the company. We put in 10,000 trees at first, and at this point have 50,000."

Their farm is situated in the barren hills just outside of Gorman. In fact, if it weren't for the California Aqueduct, Whiteside says, not only would there be no peaches, there would be no farm. As it is, their water has to be pumped a mile up the side of the mountain to a man-made lake, where it is stored until it is dispersed through drip irrigation.

As to the rapid growth in popularity, Robbins says it's all a matter of sampling. "We usually ship out a few pallets the first year and the next year they come back for two or three loads."

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