|Knight Family Produces Fourth Straight Chilton Co. Peach Growing Title|
Mark Knight has done a lot of different things during his working career, but what he’s most proud of is continuing his family tradition. In a word, it’s PEACHES!
Launched by his grandfather and continued by his father for a few years, Knight resumed what has meant so much to so many in his family.
He didn’t just pick up where his dad left off, he’s become one of the best peach growers in Chilton County. That’s saying something because his 40-acre farm can’t compete in size with the county’s larger operations like the Durbins.
For three years—from 2008 to 2010—his peach baskets were picked as the "best of the best" at the annual Peach Festival in Clanton.
On June 25, Knight did it again—winning for the fourth straight year as he was proclaimed the top peach grower in Alabama’s top peach producing county.
"I just work hard and hope for the best when it comes time to put my peaches up against the other growers," he said, as he walked slowly through his orchards just outside Clanton.
For much of the past few decades, the Harrison brothers—Jerry and Jimmy—have ruled the peach roost. Knight’s expertise brought him into that elite field of peach pickers in 2008, and he showed just how good he had gotten since getting back into the business.
"Winning in 2008 was my third try," said Knight. "I was third the first time and second the next. Then I won the next three years. I don’t like to brag, but I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do in just a few years. Winning for the fourth straight time means just as much as the first three."
Judges don’t know the names of the growers when they begin inspecting the peach baskets, but they do know quality when they see it and when it comes time to declare a winner.
It may have become a national punch line, but, as far as Knight is concerned, peach "size" really does matter along with color, firmness and, of course, taste.
"It’s important to place the peaches in the basket the right way," he said. "You don’t want to crush what’s on the bottom and you also want to show off the biggest and best of the bunch on top. I’ve been lucky to do just that since I started growing again."
Competition is keen when the peach festival judging begins in late June each year. Growers can only hope for the best because so many of them enter potential award-winning baskets for contest consideration.
Peaches are a family affair. Knight’s wife, Melissa, and their two daughters, Andrea, 14, and Alissa, 6, all take part in some capacity.
Melissa has worked at Clanton’s Wal-Mart store for the past 26 years, but when peach-picking time rolls around she can be found at farmers markets. Her girls also pitch in.
"It’s really a year-round thing because pruning and thinning take up the rest of the time after the peaches have been picked and sold," Melissa said, as she took a break from selling her latest batch outside The Shoppes of Eastchase in Montgomery.
"M&M Peaches" are among the most successful booths at the popular market. Mark said he and Melissa make more than enough on the first Saturday to pay the $350 booth space fee for the whole summer period.
While Melissa and the girls are at the booth selling peaches as well as homemade peach ice cream, Mark is 50 miles away, back home in the orchards, picking the best off the trees for eager customers.
"Doing this means a lot to me because I’m continuing what my grandfather started a long time ago," he said. "I don’t think I’d be doing this if my family hadn’t been involved. When I was young, I really didn‘t want to grow peaches."
Mark is no stranger to farming. He did some row cropping after high school, but he eventually shifted to other jobs, including brick laying. He worked at a plant in Montgomery for many years before finally heading back to what his family does best—growing peaches. He also has a lawn care business to keep him busy when he’s not in the orchards.
Chilton County’s peach output represents about 80 percent of Alabama’s total each year. It’s become a $6 million industry and local growers have been honoring their favorite crop in a special way since two years after the end of World War II when the first festival was held to pick the best fruit in the county.
It’s grown from a relatively short event into a week-long festival with "Miss Peach" and other contest winners. There’s also lots of music and other attractions during the week.
The festival has also become a political must, especially during election years when candidates ranging from governor to tax assessor stand under a brutal sun on a softball field and wait to be introduced.
A parade through town helps kick-off the final day of the festival and spectators line the streets before heading for a park to applaud the various peach queens and wait for the winner of the best peaches in the county.
The Knights rank at or near the top of the list of small peach-growing operations in Chilton County and they are expected to remain there for years to come if Mark’s winning ways continue. His brother, Seth, also is a successful peach grower in the county.
In the "old days," the peach season usually ended in August. No more. New varieties keep farmers busy longer than ever, well after Labor Day. Melissa enjoys putting in extra hours at farmers markets into the fall when she’s not working at Wal-Mart.
"The Loring peach is my favorite," she said. "It has a wonderful taste. We also sell blueberries and other fruit we grow at our farm. We don’t put out anything that isn’t the best."
Peach farmers are well aware Mother Nature can end harvest dreams in a hurry. Every now and then, snow, ice, hail and downpours have wrecked what appeared to be promising growing seasons.
"The Lord’s been good to us since we went back into the peach business," Melissa said. "Our hope is that it will continue that way for a long time."
With the way Mark and Melissa Knight have been going the past few years, it won’t be surprising to see them turning out beautiful, bountiful peach crops until it’s rocking-chair time.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.