Put your peach-eating hat on, South Carolina.
The state’s peach crop is tasty as ever this year, but the goodness will be gone earlier than ever, area growers say. A milder than normal winter has meant the yield is low and the season will end early, they said.
Still, halfway through the 2012 harvest, peach farmers say the official state fruit is showing them new daylight after a dismal market two years ago, when the stalled U.S. economy made buying a bushel of peaches seem like a luxury to some consumers.
“We’re trying to dig ourselves out of the hole from 2010, the worst year we’ve ever had,” said Jimmy Forrest, third-generation owner of Dixie Belle Inc. produce and peaches in Ward. “We thank the good Lord this year will be heading us in a good direction. We’re very excited.”
Forrest and his sons, Matt and Clark, plant about 2,100 acres total of peaches and other produce in Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda counties. But peach trees require a certain number of chilling hours over the winter to emerge from their state of rest and properly begin budding and growing at the right time.
Different peach varieties have differing chill requirements, and when optimal chill time is not met, it can change the production cycle. Forrest said he began harvesting May 2 this year when normally it starts around May 15. Harvesting will wrap up at the end of July, when normally it goes until mid-August.
“The crop is somewhat short, because of the mild winter,” Forrest said. “The crop is earlier than it’s ever been and we’ll finish earlier than ever. The quality (appearance, taste and shelf life) has been excellent; the size has been average.”
Lee Cook, who plants only 50 acres of his 350-acre farm in Trenton in peaches, also said the 2012 production cycle is off, but agrees the peaches are good.
“Certain areas of the crop this year are good, but some of them are not, because the quantity is not there because of not enough chilling hours over the winter,” Cook said. “The quality of what we do have is real good; they’re real sweet. They’ve been able to water and get the size, so, it’s gonna be — we hope — a good season.”
Last year’s crop was good all around, Cook said, but this year’s outcome depends on how well the later wave of the peach crop ripens. Prices are good, he said, with a half-bushel basket selling for $22 at the moment. Last year at this time, a half-bushel was selling for $20, Cook said.
At Dixie Belle, Forrest said a bushel goes for between $30-$40, while last year the going rate was $12-$18.
“We do have a shorter supply, but what is relevant is that California has a shorter crop,” Forrest said. “Their short crop is what has helped us on price.”
South Carolina is the nation’s second-highest peach producer behind California and this year the Golden State has experienced weather and disease problems, he said. “We have been the beneficiary of a good market due to the problems in California. We’ve had a strong demand because of a shortened supply from California.”
In 2010, Forrest recalled, “every state had peaches.” There was no market, however, because of the mix of a bad economy and an abundance of fruit, he said.
One of the area’s signature summer events, the Lexington County Peach Festival, opens for its 54th run Wednesday in Gilbert, and this week, organizers began preparations for the fest by testing the fruit from local Lexington County growers and regional peach farmers.
“We peeled right around 40 boxes of peaches and just judging by the quality, the texture and taste that we had, they’re delicious, sweet peaches and they’re going to produce a lot of very good peach treats, desserts and peaches by themselves,” said Brandon Ashley, Gilbert Peach Festival chairman.
Peach specialist and Clemson horticulture professor Desmond Layne advises peach lovers not to wait for the varieties that typically ripen later in the season, because of this year’s advanced growing cycle. “Some of the freestone varieties that people often hold out for are already ripening,” Layne said in an e-mailed advisory last week.
“A lot of people like the freestones that ripen around the Fourth of July, such as Red Globe, Harvester and Winblo, because the flesh separates easily from the stone, or pit. Those varieties are coming in right now, so people shouldn’t wait,” he said.