Thirty-nine years in the making, Billy Bob Orchards offers 22 varieties of apples throughout fall and winter

Nothing says fall more than a crisp apple. Growing up in the Northeast, my family and I would take a trip to our local U-pick orchard every fall. My favorite apple has always been the McIntosh, and I ate almost as many as I carried in my bag.

However, my beloved McIntosh is hard to find outside of the North East, so I’m on the hunt for a new favorite. As a new resident of Santa Cruz, I was thrilled to find my way to the Billy Bob Orchards stand at the Live Oak Farmers Market on a recent Sunday.

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Karen Peixoto works the booth, surrounded by many crates filled with dazzling apples: yellow-green Mutsu, red Jonagold and the Pink Lady’s blush pink. Despite the fact that it is almost 1 p.m., the end of the market, the stalls are still teeming with customers.

Peixoto describes Jonagold’s flavor profile to a customer: “It’s the most balanced taste, so there’s sweet and sour. A great apple to eat and a very good apple to cook with – this is the variety that many people will use when displaying their pies at the fair.

Billy Bob Orchards has been a small family farm since its inception. Karen’s husband, Billy Peixoto, took over his father’s Watsonville orchard in 1983. His father started it as a hobby, Billy says, and chose apples because they seemed easy to grow. Later, his mother started selling the apples directly from their homes, as well as to local grocery stores. It was 39 years ago.

Billy Bob’s name? When Billy inherited the orchard, he did so with his brother Bob, who worked there for four years before moving on. But the Billy Bob name stuck.

Billy Bob Orchards now spans 14 acres and grows 22 varieties of apples, all organic. She sells her apples primarily at farmers’ markets — including Scotts Valley, Westside Santa Cruz and Live Oak in Santa Cruz County — from September through February.

Billy still does most of the growing and harvesting, Karen says. She and her son, Zac, sell apples at the markets, and Billy hires extra help during the picking season. “But that’s about it,” Karen said.

According to Karen Peixoto, the most popular apple is “a mix between Honeycrisp and Fuji. Honeycrisp has grown well [in popularity] even since the time I’ve been doing it…because of the flavor. Fuji is what people always thought an apple was. How do the Peixotos decide which apples to grow the most? It’s simple: if they can sell them, they will grow them.

So what should I try to temper my craving for McIntosh? Billy Peixoto had plenty of suggestions, but he particularly sold me on Braeburn, available now, and Gold Rush, which will debut later in the fall. He recommended leaving both in a cold place for a few weeks. Braeburn starts out tart but will “become sweeter and sweeter” over time. Giving Gold Rush time to cool will “crease the skin of the apple, just like our skin if you press the back of your hand,” he said, but “the flesh [will be] crisp and juicy.

Billy Bob Orchards

Karen Peixoto of Billy Bob Orchards wraps treats for a farmer’s market customer.

(Thomas Sawano / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

The family has made apple picking easy, arranging what’s in season, from sweet to tangy, on their table at the farmer’s market. Then there’s the in-person customization: Says Bill of Karen, “She’s pretty sharp with all the varieties…if you tell her your taste preference, she might point you in the right direction.”

Find Billy Bob Orchards apples at Farmers Markets in Scotts Valley, Westside Santa Cruz and Live Oak.