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A fruitful start: Peach production persists amid pandemic

The health nightmare from the past couple of months has put the brakes on a variety of local traditions, but peach production is rolling ahead as usual around Edgefield and Saluda counties, with growers having their harvesting crews in action and produce stands going into business.

"We started about May the 5th," said Jimmy Forrest, co-owner of Dixie Belle Peaches, in Ridge Spring. "First week was about 20% of the crop. From now to the middle of June, we'll have about 60% of the crop, and thereafter, we'll have a full crop."

Forrest's operation, he said, sells to the public from its home base and is in chain stores "mostly in the northeast." He said Dixie Belle's volume, coming from about 3,000 acres, is consistent from the middle of May through the end of July.

"The crop is excellent quality. The peaches are good and even though we're short half the crop for the next couple of weeks, there's a good-quality crop," he said, describing this week's rain as "coming at a very opportune time."

The giant in South Carolina peaches is Titan Farms, in Ridge Spring, with Chalmers Carr III as the owner-operator. His crew covers about 6,000 acres.

"The weather's been good all spring. Plenty of rainfall. We need some warmer temperatures," he said. "Last week was a little bit cool, so that slowed things down a little bit, and we'll be ramping up – just like everybody will be – through our peak around July 4."

Carr said he anticipates a 17-week season. "Right now, everything looks good. We are concerned, obviously, about how retail's going to handle it, with all the changes in behavior," he said, referring to changes that have occurred due to the coronavirus outbreak and the ensuing shutdown. 

Among other major local growers is Jerry Watson, co-owner of Watsonia Farms, in Monetta. His operation focuses mainly on organic vegetables such as eggplant, peppers, squash, zucchini and tomatoes but still dedicates about 18% of its acreage to peaches, he said.

The peach situation differs from that of some crops, Carr said, citing the example of broccoli – one of Titan Farms' other specialities. "That broccoli didn't do well," he said, pointing out that broccoli is largely a food-service item, dependent largely on restaurants.

Titan Farms started planting broccoli before the COVID-19 breakout, and the price has plummeted, resulting in much of the crop being given away to food banks and some of it being left in the field.

As for the overall picture, Carr said, "We're excited ... This is what we we work for, and we work all year, ever since the last peach was picked."

Carr said his operation is adequately staffed in terms of seasonal workers. "We were able to get everybody, and we've got our last workers coming in next week, and we'll have ... 750 people here this summer. We need our own ZIP code out here."

South Carolina has about 18,000 acres dedicated to peaches, according to an extension report from Clemson University. It indicates that about 12,000 of those acres are "in the Ridge area which includes Edgefield, Saluda and Aiken counties."

About 3,000 more peach acres are in the upstate, and growers in Orangeburg, Clarendon and Barnwell counties "take advantage of a different climate with warmer temperatures and get a jump start on the season with earlier varieties," the report notes. "The exact numbers vary as growers rotate land when planting new orchards.

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