Bumper crop will have heavy competition

Workers in the packing facility at Lane Southern Orchards inspect and grade peaches in Fort Valley, Ga. The peaches move through a hydrocooler to stop the ripening process.
Photos courtesy of Lane Southern Orchards.

Georgia peaches and their growers are happy this year. Plenty of chill time and a dry bloom period are delivering the first bumper crop in years throughout the South.

“The peaches are real happy,” says Lawton Pearson of Pearson Farm in Fort Valley, Ga., a fifth-generation peach grower and vice president of the Georgia Peach Council. “It’s been nine or 10 years since we had this kind of weather. This year we didn’t even have a scare.”

The past three years were especially hard on the crop, with frigid weather cutting it down by about half the past two seasons and to a 16 percent yield in 2007. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service predicts peach trees will deliver 42,000 tons of produce, which is a 10,000-ton increase over 2009.

“So far it looks pretty good. We are really unfamiliar with what a full crop feels like because it’s been so long since we’ve had one,” says Pearson, whose facility also packs its peaches. “It’s fun to have something to do after three years.”

Setting up for success

Georgia growers thinned trees aggressively this year in their quest for the perfectly sweet and juicy peach. “Even on a year when you have half a crop, you still thin it,” says Pearson, whose operation includes about 1,500 acres. “Beginning around the first or middle of April, you have a month to get it done before the seed hardens and the size is set. On a year like this, that is a lot of work to do.”

Knowing when to say when is tricky. “You always worry whether or not you’ve got them thin enough. You have to walk a tightrope when you are thinning peaches. My grandfather used to say that a quick way to get out of business is to have a big crop of small peaches and that if you thin too hard you leave money in the dirt.”

Operationally, a larger crop requires more people to thin, pick and pack, and the growers say the workforce is meeting their demand. Duplication is not uncommon, with workers staying through the season to perform the different tasks.

Lane Southern Orchards employees deliver freshly picked peaches for processing. The 2,700-acre grower in Fort Valley, Ga., began harvesting what is expected to be a bumper crop in May.

“We’ve got a pretty good program in place and we have very little turnover,” says Duke Lane III, vice president of sales for Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley, Ga., and president of the Georgia Peach Council. Lane has about 2,700 acres devoted to peaches in Fort Valley, Ga. “We are cautiously optimistic,” Lane says of the harvest. “There’s a lot of summer ahead of us, but there’s only one peach state.”

Peaches, peaches everywhere

Timing is everything with peaches, as with most crops. When it comes to the race to the market, South Carolina’s harvest typically nips at Georgia’s heels, followed by East Coast and California peaches. “It’s tough when everybody hits the market,” says Peach County, Ga., Extension Coordinator Frank Funderburk, who is also the peach council’s executive director. “But because we do have name recognition at least for southern peaches, if not Georgia peaches, a lot of our retailers are wanting to buy them from us.”

He adds, “I got a call from a retailer in Mississippi, and there are peaches between here and there, but his customers were asking him for Georgia peaches.”

Regional interest in Georgia peaches has resulted in more short-buys from grocers, says Kerry Barrett, eastern buyer for Forest Park, Ga.-based General Produce, whose wholesale division serves retail and food service companies. “The chain stores are promoting buying local and they do a lot of short-buys from us until they get another truck in,” says Barrett, who also confirms that Georgia is not the only state with a bumper crop this year. “It’s not just peaches—everything is coming in at once with the warm weather this year,” Barrett says. “People are calling and begging you to buy. The West Coast has the same situation with the depressed market.”

Georgia does have a competitive advantage: fruit size. “It looked like it was going to be a bloodbath over prices between Georgia and South Carolina, but it’s not. Some of the growers in South Carolina are having a problem with size.”

Farther north

There are good peach-producing states farther up the Atlantic Seaboard. Pennsylvania growers, who enjoy more consistent peach volume, expected a full crop this year, and the crop might hit the New York-Philadelphia-Washington market a bit ahead of normal schedule.

“The one thing that is a bit unusual is we are going to be early this year and we’re a bit concerned about it,” says Lee Showalter of Rice Fruit Company in Gardners, Pa. Rice Fruit grows and packs apples, peaches, nectarines and pears.

“We had an early spring so we may overlap a bit.”

Catering to the localvore

Georgia peach farmers are on a mission to “take back” the peach state. The Georgia Peach Council’s “Sweet Georgia Peaches” campaign is taking advantage of the local-grown movement.

On this line, there are two belts, one on top of the other. Culls or discarded peaches are handled here.

“I think a lot of consumers were not aware of the season and availability [of Georgia peaches] because we’ve had some recent history of frost and peaches haven’t always been available,” says Lane. The council, comprised of Georgia’s larger growers, has fostered promotions with retailers including Publix, Kroger and Wal-Mart.

Kevin Doty, the regional produce coordinator for Whole Foods, says, “In our Georgia stores we carry Georgia peaches from day one. We also feature Georgia peaches in our Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina stores until their local seasons begin.”

Other grocers say it is hard to define just how many peaches are sold from areas across the country in their produce sections, but just about all of those grocers have the same refrain: that they are responding to the consumer demand for local food.

“Our policy is to find the freshest product as close to home as possible, it is just good business,” says Brenda Reid, spokesperson for Publix. “We take advantage of the East Coast’s local season and we work very closely with the growers in the local area all the time.”

Whatever the competition brings, growers hope their local and regional focus will result in healthy sales.

Jennifer Paire is a freelance writer based in Canton, Ga.