Driving around the Ridge area of South Carolina in late summer offers a number of culinary opportunities, but none better than the dozens of roadside stands that dot the backwoods highways, selling peaches.
Having worked a number of times with legendary Auburn Horticulturist Joe Norton, tasting peaches and other fruit and nut crops, I have developed a fairly keen sense of taste for fruit. Dr. Norton, now deceased, tried to explain the advantages and disadvantages of too much or too little water on fruit crops — a little of that knowledge stuck.
Traveling around South Carolina this summer, I stopped to taste peaches at several roadside stands and thought I detected a sweeter than usual taste. Though too few people know it, South Carolina is second largest peach producing state in the country, trailing only …..California, not Georgia.
In terms of peach production, California is by far the largest peach producing state. Georgia hasn't ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in peach production since the early 1980s. Below are state averages for the past five years:
- California:796 million pounds.
- South Carolina:111 million pounds.
- Georgia:86 million pounds.
- New Jersey:66 million pounds.
- Michigan:37 million pounds.
If you’ve ever eaten a peach, picked fresh off the tree in Fresno, Calif., you would be hard-pressed to say any fruit is better. However, pick it, store it and ship it across the country and you get a significantly different taste.
Peach purists will tell you not to get fooled by early peaches from California. They harvest several weeks earlier than South Carolina and flood the market with fruit. The good stuff, grown, bought and consumed locally starts coming into production in July and typically runs until October.
The ‘Ridge’ runs roughly from Augusta, Ga., mostly south to north through South Carolina to North Carolina. The correct altitude and soil and a few families who have been in the peach business for several generations make the perfect combination for high quality peaches.
Evidently, my taste buds didn’t fail me this year. Most peach growers and peach connoisseurs agree this year’s crop is especially sweet.
A mild winter produced a plentiful crop and farmers made the right judgments on thinning, generally going early to keep the trees healthy.
The peaches in some varieties were smaller, primarily because of extended dry weather up and down the Ridge. However, the experts say the smaller peaches are unusually sweet — even by Ridge standards.
“In many ways, it’s been a blessing to have less rain because you aren’t worrying about disease as much, but the size of the peach suffers — they’re a little smaller — but the consumer is getting more bang for their buck since they’re getting more peaches in a bushel,” said Andy Rollins, Extension vegetable and fruit agent with Clemson University.
Anderson County, S.C., grower Andy Callaham, who manages Callaham Orchards, further confirms my culinary acumens. “This season started about two weeks earlier than usual and ran until mid-October. The lack of rain definitely made this year’s peaches sweeter than any crop in recent years,” he says.
The current value of the peach industry in South Carolina is $40 million. This state grows about 60,000 tons of peaches annually, according to the South Carolina Peach Council.