By Christy Swift
Photography by Emily Plank
It only happens once a year and only for a couple of months; blink and you’ll miss it. The warm, fuzzy, tree-ripened fruits in your hand. Big bites of sweet, soft flesh all the colors of a sunset. Juice dripping down your chin. That’s right, folks… PEACH Season is here!
The Sweetest Peach is a Southern Peach
Peach picking in Florida is kind of a special thing. In a state known for its citrus, peaches aren’t the first thing you might expect at a U-pick, but with the University of Florida’s heat-friendly varieties, more and more peach orchards are popping up.
The Southern Peach Company in Ft. Lonesome is one farm who jumped on the peach bandwagon back in 2011. Now, four generations of the Gill family grow three varieties of peaches on 22 acres of their homestead and run a U-pick every year mid-April through mid-May, with exact dates depending on when the peach trees decide it’s “pickin’ time.”
“We share on our Facebook page the dates we’re open, what time, what to expect and all the info on that,” says Debbie Gill, who along with her husband Anthony, her son Ryan, daughter Kaitlyn and daughter-in-law Kaylie tend to the orchard, U-pick and General Store. The patriarch of the family, Dock Gill, keeps an eye on things, while the oldest grandchildren, 12-year-old Eli and 11-year-old Ella Jae, help out cleaning buckets. The smallest Gills, seven-year-old Doc McCoy, four-year-old Hattie Blu and two-year-old Grace do their part, too.
“They love having the responsibility and working with us,” Debbie says of her grandchildren. “We’ve raised them right.”
Growing from Tragedy
You can’t tell from the idyllic setting, but the Southern Peach Company was born from tragedy. The Gill family has owned the 42-acre homestead for over 100 years. Where the rows of peach trees dig their feet into the ground used to be covered in rows of cabbages grown by “Granny Dovie” Gill Keen. Later, her son Dock Gill, who just celebrated his 89th birthday, worked with a professor at the University of Florida to put in blueberries. “He was one of the first farmers in Florida back in the day to plant blueberries,” Debbie explains. “People thought he was crazy.”
Dock had a lot of success running his blueberry farm as a U-pick. Debbie recalls how her teenage boys, Justin and Ryan, helped plant the bushes. Then, in 2004, tragedy struck. Seventeen-year-old Justin was killed in an accident not even a mile up the road from the farm.
“It was devastating to our family,” Debbie recalls. That was when her father-in-law Dock took the blueberries out. “Papa didn’t want to farm anything.”
The farm sat vacant for eight long years until Debbie and Anthony decided to approach Dock about peaches. “It was uncharted waters for us. We went to the seminars UF put on and read the literature. That’s when we decided we would plant something to bring the people, to get them off the pavement onto the grass.”
Opening Their Hearts
Now this land that has seen deep sorrow experiences great joy every spring when picking season comes. If you’ve heard Florida peaches are smaller than Georgia peaches, don’t believe a word of it—at least not here. Through trial and error and doing things “a little outside the box,” the Gills produce a beautiful crop while reaching out to the community at the same time. Locals, home-schoolers and families from urban areas make a day of peach picking, filling their buckets and then just sitting in the cool grass under the trees.
“They see where their food comes from,” says Debbie, who has a passion for agriculture education. She is a past president of the Cattlewomen’s Association, current Region 2 director, and was named Cattlewoman of the Year for 2016 and 2017. The Gills own a total of 250 acres of state land and lease even more for ranching. The Southern Peach Company is part of the Fresh From Florida program and a founding member of the Florida Agritourism Association.
A Peachy Place to Get Married
There’s a second reason people come to the farm, and it has nothing to do with peaches. The Gills host events and beautiful barn weddings in the original homestead buildings just around the corner from their stately peach orchard. Like everything else on a farm, the weddings have their season. Beginning in January, the Gills book one spring wedding or event per weekend until peach season starts in April. Their fall wedding schedule starts in late August. While they could squeeze more events in, Debbie says they wanted to offer a relaxing, all-inclusive boutique experience: “It gives us a chance to just focus on their special day.”
Weddings on the property are a combination of beauty and history. On a typical wedding day, the moms of the bride and groom spend the day in the Orchard House. The girls get their hair and makeup done in the Cracker House. The pre-reception is held in the Grove House Barn, which used to store the ladders back in the day when Dock grew citrus. The groomsmen get ready in the General Store, a replica of the famous old Fort Lonesome general store.
The event itself is held in the Wedding Barn, which used to be a working horse barn. Photos can be taken in the orchard when the peach blossoms are in bloom or anywhere on the scenic property, which includes additional original sites like the Bathtub Gin Barn (where Uncle Tommy used to make his grape wine), the Pecan House (where the pecans were shelled), and Granny Dovie’s guava patch (still featuring guavas).
“We love meeting the families. We are blessed that God’s given us this land to be able to share with people,” says Debbie.
How to Pick the Perfect Peach
We won’t be giving you any wedding advice today, but we will pass on some tips for peach picking in case you’re planning to go.
- Check www.facebook.com/thesouthernpeachcompany for exact U-pick dates and times and any Covid-19 restrictions.
- The color doesn’t determine the ripeness of the peach. They will all have a combination of reds and yellows.
- Hold the peach in your hand and gently press your thumb into the skin. It should give just a little, but not be mushy.
- Twist and pull at the same time so you don’t tear the skin.
To get to the farm, plug the following address into your GPS: 13231 SR-674, Lithia, FL or just go to Ft. Lonesome and follow the smell of fresh, sweet, ripe peaches! Even with Covid-19 restrictions last year, the farm was able to open for fresh-air peach picking. The family took provisions to keep groups separated and asked people to use their common sense. They’ll do the same if restrictions are still in place this year.
Lastly, be respectful in how many peaches you eat in the field, but the Gills would be disappointed if you didn’t taste one.
Happy Peach Picking!