Nestled snugly in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains just 30 minutes west of Charlottesville lies a local market. Its one long-lived purpose? To produce some of the juiciest fruits in the state—Virginia ripened sweet peaches. The Chiles family invites one and all the stop by the market from mid-June to late-July to be part of their family tradition.
While some might argue that this is true of just about any fruit, a perfectly ripe peach is something special, and has become a hallmark of summer for our region. When biting into your first sweet peach of the season—feeling the juices drip down your chin and onto your shirt, the flesh filling your mouth—it is virtually impossible not to feel like a kid again. Each and every year, I take my family to Meet the Growers of Chiles Peach Orchard and Farm Market in Crozet not only to relive my own childhood memories but also to create new ones for my children.
Pick-Your-Own Peaches in Virginia
Chiles Peach Orchard has become a staple in the local farm-to-table community, where all ages can really connect to the process of horticulture as they walk amongst the orchard and pick fresh peaches from the trees. The orchard has been designated as one of Virginia’s nearly 1,400 “Century Farms”—farms that have been in business for over 100 years. But it hasn’t always been the “pick your own” farm that we have come to know and love. In the beginning, the family focused on commercial production, packing up their peaches and shipping them all over the country.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Chiles opened their fields to the local population. That year, a major freeze came through the region, threatening the entire crop and limiting the potential for commercial gain. Worried about having to shut down the entire operation, Henry and Ruth Chiles put an ad in the local paper. They invited the public to come out and pick their own local sweet peaches. During that first year, Ruth sat down on her farm with nothing more than a card table, a set of scales, a cigar box and hope. And, sure enough, through faith and the community, the farm made it through that year. Sadly, the Chiles family suffered a great loss in July of 2021 with the passing of Ruth Chiles. Ruth’s legacy and spirit will forever live on at Chiles Family Orchard, and in the hearts of all of us in the community deeply touched by Ruth’s tenacity and heart. We at Ivy Life & Style Media and Wine & Country Life offer our deepest condolences to the Chiles family and will miss such a beloved community figure.
Local Goods Offered at Chiles Peach Orchard
What the family hadn’t anticipated, though, was their leadership into a new era of “pick your own” farming. Their movement paved the way for Charlottesville’s current local food movement. For Ruth, the memories from those early days still hold a special place in her heart. “My best memories,” she says, “are of all of the schoolchildren who came to visit. I love their enthusiasm!”
Today, Ruth’s little card table has transformed into a full farm market, bustling with customers during the season as they stop by for more than just dozens of sweet peaches. During the late spring, the large strawberry patch invites visitors to the property, teasing them with the thought of those juicy peaches, not yet ripe for the picking. Additionally, pies, donuts and cider line the shelves of the barn-style market alongside jars of sauces, salsas and preserves. All of the baked goods are made in-house on a daily basis from tried-and-true recipes. The cider is pressed locally using apples from the Chiles properties as well as other local orchards. No matter what they have on the shelves of the barn, their mission is offering customers the best experience of what Central Virginia has to offer.
Sweet Peaches at Chiles Peach Orchard
Before her passing, Ruth’s love of the orchard remained. Even in her retirement she enjoyed visiting the family orchard to check in on the operations. Today, Ruth’s daughter Cynthia has taken over the retail side of the business and remembers days when her mother would stop in. “She was our best cheerleader,” says Cynthia. “She was proud of what we accomplished, but she would always stop in to make sure that we were still doing it right. Even though she had been retired for years, she would still have people asking about her when they came through.”
The peach trees at Monticello represented what historian Peter Hatch referred to as the ‘bounty and luxury of the New World’s natural productions.’
Although the Chiles began their venture in the production of sweet peaches over a century ago, they have no plans of slowing down. They believe peaches are a delicacy, a description Thomas Jefferson himself would most likely use today. During his time, Jefferson grew at least 38 different varieties of the juicy fruit, and the peach trees at Monticello represented what historian Peter Hatch referred to as the “bounty and luxury of the New World’s natural productions.”
History of Peaches in Virginia
Thanks to the Chiles family, who began producing their sweet peaches in 1912 when Henry Chiles and John Montague began planting both apples and peaches in and around Crozet, our region has access to the fresh fruit. At the time, planting a peach orchard wouldn’t have been thought of as a new or novel idea. In fact, peaches were grown all over the area then, and in the 1920s and 1930s, Crozet and the surrounding area was considered the peach capital of the East Coast.
The terraced mountain orchards provide just the right setting, and the weather is typically just the right mix for those delicate trees. To make the perfect crop, peaches need a cold winter, a late spring and a hot, dry summer with some rain. “Most years, we have some of these conditions, but not all,” says Cynthia. “Last year, we didn’t have any. The last couple of years have been a real challenge.”
From those first few trees, the Chiles’ farms have grown to be one of the largest peach producers in the state. Through either purchase or lease, the Chiles family has acquired almost 400 peach-producing acres in the Crozet and Batesville area, nearly one-third of Virginia’s peach-bearing acreage.
The Future of Sweet Peaches in Virginia
Much has changed since those early days, though, especially in the 44 years since Ruth set up that first table. According to Cynthia, technology has been the biggest game changer. The family can now monitor the weather, helping them to make decisions about irrigation and frost protection for the sensitive trees. And, thanks to having completely modernized the retail operation, they can keep track of inventory and maintain records. With their point-of-sale system and a tablet, they can even help visitors pay for their pickings right in the fields.
Like her mother, Cynthia enjoys interacting with those customers in the field most. She loves watching everyone connect with their food and where it comes from.
“When I see kids come and take a bite of their first fresh peach, or even an adult who has not eaten fresh sweet peaches in a long time,” Cynthia says, “I can see how much they really appreciate what we’re doing out here. It just makes all of the hard work worth it.”
And, hard work it is. Peach trees are notoriously sensitive to the effects of frost, overwatering and a number of different diseases. “They require so much love and care,” she adds. “That’s part of what makes them so special.” Thankfully, the varieties at Chiles Peach Orchard are specially suited to Virginia’s climate. For Cynthia, the Virginia peach is her favorite. It may be the mountain air, the central Virginia soil, the temperatures or just her personal bias, but to her, there is no better peach around.
Choosing the Right Peach
Although they grow multiple varieties of peaches at Chiles, there are two main types: yellow and white. The yellow peach is your classic, traditional peach. Cynthia calls it “your grandma’s peach.” Its flavor can best be described as sharp, tangy and slightly acidic with an underlying sweetness. While the white peach is mellower and a little milder with a honeyed sweetness. Some people claim the white peach is sweeter than the yellow, but Cynthia believes that’s because the white peaches do not have that acidity to balance out the sweetness.
A third variety available at Chiles is the popular donut peach. Developed specifically for eating out of the hand, this peach has a thinner skin and is much smaller. Since the donut peaches come in yellow and white varieties, their flavors are very similar to their larger cousins.
When I asked Cynthia what her favorite Virginia peach variety is, she laughed, saying, “Truly, I’m happiest with the peach that I can eat right there in the field, still warm from the sun.” When it comes to cooking their peaches, the Chiles family likes to keep it simple—grilled peaches with a dollop of goat cheese or a little ricotta.
Year after year, the Chiles family invites local families to join theirs. When I take my own children into the orchard this summer to grab that perfect sweet peach, we might find ourselves joined by a fourth or fifth generation member of the Chiles family.
Family Farming at Chiles Peach Orchard
After Henry Chiles planted the first peach trees over 100 years ago, his children expanded the wholesale operation. Followed by his grandson, Henry, and granddaughter-in-law, Ruth, they started the orchard’s retail sales. Now, his great-granddaughter, Cynthia, is using technology to lead the retail division into the next chapter of the family’s story. What’s more impressive is that all of them learned by doing.
Cynthia’s father, Henry (the third generation), worked the fields as a teenager before taking over the business after his father died at a young age. As Henry liked to say, he “graduated from the school of hard knocks.” They all grew up in the fields or in the offices, learning the jobs firsthand. Even Ruth, as a stay-at-home mom to three, managed the early days of the retail business single-handedly.
With plans to carry on the family legacy some day, Cynthia’s nieces and nephews—the fifth generation at Chiles—are studying horticulture. They come back home to help out during the busy season, learning the business and preparing themselves to take over when their time comes. It is this sense of family that will keep the orchard going, destined to blossom with the generations to come.
Visit our Events Calendar for local orchard events and farmers market to pick-you-own sweet peaches and more. Looking for peach recipe ideas? Try our Peaches and Mascarpone Tart Recipe and our recipe for Peach Pie. We’re always sharing more Wine & Country recipes, wine features, and more here. ~
BRIAN MELLOTT has a master’s degree in education, and is a writer and photographer whose work shows his passion for food and the people who create it.
With over 15 years of experience, AARON WATSON along with his wife Lisa and the wonderful AWP team enjoy photographing weddings, family portraits, senior portraits and commercial work in Charlottesville, Virginia and worldwide.
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