Thirty-nine years in the making, Billy Bob Orchards offers 22 apple varieties through fall and winter

Apples from Billy Bob Orchards at a Santa Cruz farmers market
Just some of Billy Bob Orchards’ farmers market bounty.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

How do you match your taste buds to the apples of the moment? Karen Peixoto and Watsonville’s Billy Bob Orchards, fixtures at several Santa Cruz County farmers markets, will help you find the perfect pairings.

Nothing evokes fall more than a crisp apple. Growing up in the Northeast, my family and I would make a trip up to our local U-pick orchard each fall. My favorite apple was always the McIntosh, and I’d eat almost as many as I’d bring home in my bag.

My beloved McIntosh is difficult to find outside the Northeast, however, so I’m on the hunt for a new favorite. As a new Santa Cruz resident, I was thrilled to find my way to Billy Bob Orchards’ stand at the Live Oak farmers market on a recent Sunday.

Karen Peixoto works the stand, surrounded by numerous crates filled with dazzling apples: yellow-green Mutsu, red Jonagold and the rose blush of the Pink Lady. Despite the fact that it’s nearly 1 p.m., the end of the market, the stands are still bustling with customers.

Peixoto is describing the Jonagold flavor profile to a customer: “It’s the most well balanced in flavor, so it’s got some sweet, some tart. An excellent apple to eat, and a really good apple to cook with — that’s the variety a lot of people will use when they enter their pies into the fair.”

Billy Bob Orchards has been a small family-owned farm from its inception. Karen’s husband, Billy Peixoto, took over the Watsonville orchard from his father 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 right from their home, as well as to local grocery stores. That was 39 years ago.

The name Billy Bob? When Billy inherited the orchard, he did so with his brother Bob, who worked on it for four years before moving on. But the Billy Bob name has lasted.

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

It’s still just Billy doing nearly all of the growing and harvesting, says Karen. She and her son, Zac, sell apples at the markets, and Billy hires some additional help during picking season. “But that’s pretty much it,” Karen said.

According to Karen Peixoto, the most popular apple is “a toss-up between Honeycrisp and Fuji. Honeycrisp has definitely grown [in popularity] even in the time I’ve been doing it ... because of the flavor. Fuji is what people have always thought an apple is.” How do the Peixotos decide which apples to grow more of? It’s simple: If they can sell them, they’ll grow them.

So what should I try out to temper my McIntosh hankering? Billy Peixoto had numerous suggestions, but he particularly sold me on Braeburn, available now, and Gold Rush, which will make its debut later in the fall. He recommended leaving both in a cold place for a few weeks. Braeburn starts as tart but will “turn sweeter and sweeter” with time. Giving Gold Rush time to chill will cause the apple’s skin to “wrinkle up, just like our skin if you push on the back of your hand,” he said, but “the flesh [will be] crunchy and juicy.”

Billy Bob Orchards
Karen Peixoto of Billy Bob Orchards bags up goodies for a farmers market customer.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The family has made apple-picking easy, arranging what’s seasonal from sweet to tart on their table at the farmers market. Then there’s the in-person customization: Said Bill of Karen, “she’s pretty sharp with all the varieties … if you tell her your taste preference she could steer you in the right direction.”

Find Billy Bob Orchards’ apples at farmers markets in Scotts Valley, on Santa Cruz’s Westside and Live Oak.