"You're sweet as a peach and twice as juicy." Growing up, that's what my grandmother would say to me whenever she scooped me into her Chloé-fragranced hug. And while I got the basic gist of the phrase as a kid, it wasn't until last summer that the term of endearment came stunningly into focus. I'd picked up a sun-ripened peach from farmer Fritz Aichele's Marion Square Farmers Market stand. In one exquisite bite — fruity flesh falling off the pit, the golden orbs' juice running down my arm — I realized, Grammy couldn't have given higher praise. A summer peach, especially one from South Carolina — "The Tastier Peach State" — is about as close to enjoying the nectar of the gods as one can get.
High demand nectar, too. South Carolina ranks as the second highest peach producer in the nation (second only to California — take that Georgia), each year roughly 200 million pounds of peaches are harvested at a value of $35 million, according to the S.C. Department of Agriculture. While most of the state's peaches come from the Upstate and Piedmont regions, here in the Lowcountry a handful of growers fight the weather and pests to produce tasty harvests as well.
Thinking back on that bite, I figured I needed to go to the source to determine what it is about local peaches that make them so damn good. The aforementioned Aichele of Maple Ridge Farm was happy to oblige.
"Growing peaches is more of an art form than a science," Aichele says. "These guys in the Upstate doing 800 to 1,000 acres of peaches are magicians." Orchard wizards must use all their powers to grow the finicky species.
"Peaches are a pest magnet — bacteria, fungi, nematodes, they're prone to all that," says Aichele. But the humble farmer must have some magic of his own as Aichele's biggest peach problem has been over-abundance. On his farm in Walterboro, he grows blueberries and blackberries in addition to peaches but scaled back his peach operation from eight acres to just two a few years ago.
"We found that we couldn't sell them all. We'd wind up having two-thirds of our crop fall on the ground," he says. Aichele blames the conundrum on dueling factors — his location and demand. "We're way up here in the country, so to make it worth the drive and gas money you need to buy a whole bushel. But folks don't can anymore. All anyone really wants is a couple of peaches for the week."
Gone are the days when canning fresh fruit and vegetables was a family affair. I have a vague memory of one childhood summer afternoon spent with grandma Jean canning jar after jar of Northwest peaches back home in Yakima, Wash., but if you asked me how to can today? Well, I'd be about as useful as a wooden watch.
"People's eating habits have changed so much," Aichele says. "They'd just as soon buy pre-canned from the grocery store." So it's off to the farmers markets he goes, hauling truck-fulls of his harvest to city consumers.
In the Upstate it's a different story. Farmers like Chalmers Carr III of Titan Farm in Ridge Spring don't worry about canning. He grows 650,000 peach trees on 1,500 acres and sells to major retailers — Harris Teeter, Bi-Lo, Wal-Mart — as far as Maine, Colorado, and the Caribbean. His operation is so large that in one harvest he'll produce more peaches than the entire state of Georgia. But this year, due to a freak February storm, he and other Upstate and Piedmont farmers could take a hit.
"We were at full bloom when this cold event happened," he says. Peaches require a certain amount of chill hours before accruing what Carr calls "heat units." But the cold snap hit right when his trees were producing their first blooms. A low pressure storm off the Atlantic pulled in air from Canada. "It came on the western side of the Appalachians, kept its cold air, moved into Alabama and Georgia, and up to us, getting as low as 23 degrees," he says. Twenty-six degrees is the coup de grâce. "I've lost the first six weeks of my early crop," Carr adds. And consumers should take note: with droughts on the West Coast and this blow to the local harvest, Carr believes shoppers should expect higher prices in June. That said, his best tasting crop, the juicy Freestone peaches picked July through August, should be a much better supply.
But the weather hiccup won't only impact shoppers pocketbooks. The Ridge Spring economy will also take a hit. Starting April 10 Carr had planned to have 460 employees, mainly H2A migrant workers, on site. "Some of those people aren't going to be working for some time because the job Mother Nature did. Those are people who buy clothes, buy food. Now I'll have to furlough them, or they'll work minimal hours," he says sounding disheartened.
"How do I feel about being a farmer?" Carr laughs in response to my question. "Today? Not the greatest. But ultimately we love what we do. The challenge of farming is, no two days are alike. When you have a weather event like this, it can be extremely frustrating. Mother Nature comes in and gives you adversity and you think, 'Oh my goodness. What am I doing? I'm banging my head against a wall.' There are highs and lows. But the highs outweigh the lows," he says.
For Aichele though, he's looking at a good year. Thanks to his Lowcountry location, his peach trees hadn't bloomed yet when that wicked February storm hit, meaning his early crop, which is soaking up heat units now, should be right on time. And this summer he has something else to look forward to. "My nine-year-old granddaughter asked me the other day if she could help work at the farmers market this summer," he says. "That's what I'm excited about, getting to have her there." Come June, you can expect to see the two of them, Aichele and little Abigail, every Saturday at Marion Square, selling South Carolina peaches — those delicious, sun-ripened golden spheres. I can't wait to have one. Something tells me they'll be just as sweet as I remember. And twice as juicy.