Bounty Hunter: Dry Finish

Last summer, as I was leaving for work, I looked at our peach trees, which were bearing some of their first ripe fruit and thought, “They’ll be perfect by Friday!” Unfortunately, I came home about 6 p.m. that night only to find that every peach was gone!     

It was quite a mystery — there was not a pit on the ground and the tree  was picked clean. I knew if an animal had gotten them, it would have left a lot of pits as evidence, so I figured the thief had to be a human. Our driveway is 400 feet (122 m) long and you can see the house clearly from the road, but you can’t see the fruit on the peach tree. Whoever plundered our peaches had to come up our drive, into our yard and pick every one. Nervy to say the least!   

I am an auctioneer by trade and a hobby winemaker and fruit grower. I started making wine when we lived in Washington State, and last year I made a total of 140 gallons (530 L) of of assorted  fruit and grape wines. We have about eight to ten peach, plum, pear apple and pomegranate trees, 100 blackberry plants — and in the vineyard, 400 grapevines, including Chambourcin, Norton, Isabella, Catawba and Baco Noir. We have invested about $10,000 in our vineyard alone in the past four years.    

In addition to enjoying the fruit we grow for eating and making wine, as part of my job as an auctioneer I sell fruit for a local Amish produce auction, and our plan is to use our fruit crops as an investment by selling what we can in the auction.    

As I pondered the peach problem that day, I  also started thinking about our chickens’ egg boxes, which were cleaned out a week before. Each of the hens lay about eight to ten eggs a day like clockwork. When I went to collect the eggs that day, however, I found their nests empty. I remember that I thought it was strange, but figured they’d laid them outside somewhere. Then I got to thinking that the eggs had gone missing another time a week or so before that too.   

My wife and I moaned and groaned about losing our peaches. We had been waiting for four years since we planted the trees, and we were excited that we were finally going to get to taste them. There was possibly about a bushel of fruit, which is not a lot, but the two of us were so ready for those fresh peaches.   

After discussing the dilemma, we decided the culprit had to be someone who knew our schedule, such as a neighbor or possibly a “friend” playing a practical joke, not realizing that it wasn’t funny. We had plenty of other fruit to share, but nobody had approached us to ask for any.   

Two days later, Paula, my wife, came home early from work. That time of year the growth around the driveway is grown up to where you can’t see her silver-grey car where she parks, until you get to the top of the driveway.     

She was out in the yard, about to go pick blackberries, when into the clearing steps our neighbor and her young daughter. Both of them were carrying empty grocery bags, heading toward our vineyard.   

In the conversation that followed my neighbor kept apologizing, which made no sense to Paula at the time. My wife was tired after a very long week at work. The neighbor went on about how hard life was for their family right now and asked, “You wouldn’t even miss them if I picked a few bags of grapes, would you?” referring to our small backyard vineyard.   

Paula explained to the neighbor that  we had planted our grapes to hopefully have a small cash crop, that the grapes were expensive to plant and required a lot of work. It was the first year that we would get a small crop and they weren’t ready to pick yet anyway.      

The neighbor asked my wife again, “Well, you don’t mind if we pick what we want do you?”      

My wife repeated that the grapes were our investment, so we did mind. Something was beginning to click in her mind about what the neighbor was up to, which stopped her short from offering a dozen eggs or nice fresh cantaloupe that she had been considering doing.   

Paula called me after the neighbor left and said, “I think know who our peach thief is!”   

We spent the weekend trying to come up with the right signs to put along the vineyard in view of the road. The one I liked was:

If you’re hungry
We’ll fix you a meal.
There’s really no reason
For you to steal.

The signs we decided to put up, however, said:

Be safe!  Before picking, ask about my spray program!
We are hoping that this warning will remind our visitors to think twice before helping themselves to our fruit — grapes, peaches or otherwise, or at least remind them to ask first as we are more than willing to share what we can afford with anyone. And hopefully next year our peach trees will bear enough fruit for everyone!