Iberia’s Garden of Eden
04/13/2017 07:00AM ● Published by Christy Quebedeaux
Gallery: Eddie Romero’s Orchard [4 Images] Click any image to expand.
Eddie Romero’s Orchard
By Suzanne Ferrara | Photos by Lee Ball Photogrphy
There’s a real Garden of Eden growing in Iberia Parish. In this garden, however, you will not only be tempted by its luscious fruits, you’ll be allowed to taste and purchase its mouth-watering bounty. In fact, once you sink your teeth into these juicy treats, courtesy of mother nature, you might think you’ve died and gone to heaven. “It’s sweeter than cake or candy,” says orchard farmer Eddie Romero, owner of Eddie Romero’s Orchard.
“I got a fruit jungle!” exclaims Romero when he speaks about the 12-acre orchard in his backyard. There is something at Romero’s Orchard on Freetown Road for every taste bud and yes, you can pick it right off the vine or branch at a much cheaper price than you would pay at the grocery store. “I show them how to pick a ripe piece of fruit while they are here.”
There are 500 fruit trees with different types of fruit, but—wait-- that doesn’t include the variations of all the fruit in the orchard, from 20 varieties of juicy peaches to 20-plus differentiations of muscadines. “You can’t get more fresh than picking ripe fruit off these trees,” says a fervent Romero, who even has a plethora of rare fruits like the pineapple guava and paw-paw.
As for whether or not his orchard is all-organic, he replies, “if someone tells you their fruit is totally organic, they are lying to you because the insects would eat them up. I’ve got grandchildren out here picking and eating, and I have to be careful.” Romero has a commercial chemical license and says he gets very upset about the chemicals used on some produce from Mexico and abroad. “Some things don’t need to be sprayed. I spray my peaches at the very beginning when they are small to keep the bugs out of them, and I use a very mild form of pesticide.”
And Romero does all the planting and pruning alone, while his wife Eunice weighs the fruit and rings up the sales for customers under their carport. “I do this seven days a week. If it was work or hard to do, I wouldn’t do it, it would be a job. This is something I love, and I can’t wait to get up in the morning and do something outside!”
After all, this oasis is the dream come true for the 73-year-old, who was the son of an avid farmer and sharecropper. His father bought 40 acres in Coteau, and by the time his father died, that 40 had grown to 600 acres. “He bought that land in the 1940s. I can remember, when I was 5 years old, we moved from Lydia to Coteau, and I was riding on a wagon load of corn pulled by mules.”
When asked, ‘What would his father think of your orchard?,’ Romero quickly replies, “He wouldn’t believe that I did all this.” The lush orchard is a stark contrast from the commodities his family had to grow for survival. “We had crawfish, soybean, wheat, rice and sugarcane; we were diversified, and at one time we had close to a thousand head of cattle. My daddy would barter everything, and it seems we never had to go to the store”.
So from where does Romero’s deep passion to grow produce and share it with everyone really come? “’It’s in my blood,” he quickly replies. But perhaps the seed was planted long ago when Romero watched his father grow a few fruit trees for his family and then shared its bounty with the needy. “We had more than enough from those trees, and he wanted to help people.” Seeing that intangible reward coupled with his parents’ undying Catholic faith just may be the ultimate reason Romero created his own garden. “This is my 401k, and while I can’t buy a new car with the little money I make, I do have social security and I am also doing this for my grandchildren and the people of Acadiana.”
It was back in 1986, when Romero was working for the Department of Energy, that his deeply rooted desire to plant the orchard grew at a fever pitch and he started out by planting five trees. “I like cherries and apricots so I tried growing them first, and they wouldn’t bear fruit; I didn’t realize that you need so many chilling hours and that’s the main mistake people make today. The tree will grow, but it will never have fruit on it in most cases.”
To say he learned from his mistakes is an understatement, and today he is sought worldwide for his in-depth knowledge of horticulture and agriculture. Romero is the director of the Louisiana Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association which works in conjunction with the LSU AgCenter. “I try to keep local farmers’ markets going, and help other people out with their smaller orchards and vineyards.” Romero’s orchard is also used as part of Cornell University’s horticulture curriculum and is a site for educational visits from the National Horticultural Society.
Right now, Romero is busy pruning and readying his ‘fruit jungle’ for the masses who will visit between May and August when most varieties are ripe and ready for the picking. “People just call me a week before and I let them know what will be ready.”
Did I mention Romero’s knack for experimentation and endless effort to stay ahead of the game.? “LSU researchers are looking at planting tea in south Louisiana and I have experiments going on right here. I planted coffee and green tea; we’ll see how well it grows. This is the real thing; the actual leaves that are packed with antioxidants.”
Romero is chockfull of basic ingenuity; for example, he’s turned his above ground pool into a greenhouse. “I call it a work of art,” he laughs. “I put glass windows of all types all around it, all four-foot-high, and a door to walk in on the side. I placed visqueen as the ceiling.” And voila!! He has a gold mine of juicy tomatoes, cucumbers and parsley.
With more and more medical proof of the endless health benefits of fruits and vegetables, Romero says those who come to fill their buckets with the fruits containing the most antioxidants have increased in recent years, and subsequently more people are coming to him to learn how to create self-sustainable gardens. Romero’s own diet is rich in nutrients because he constantly eats off the land.
Aside from his wife, the only family member who works with him in the orchard these days is his 11-year-old granddaughter Lannie who lost her mother to cancer. “She’s the only one who shows a real interest, and she loves it.”
But make no mistake about it, Romero doesn’t plan on quitting any time soon. Romero is a well-oiled machine, and moves from one project to another all day long in his orchard. When people tell Romero he’s getting too old to keep this up, he wisely replies, “I tell them I’m just getting started and maybe I’ll slow down when I’m 100.”