Gwen Fowler



S.C. peaches are at peak now, and the crop is extra sweet

Posted 7/8/2012 5:48:00 PM

If you’re waiting for the peak of South Carolina’s peach crop to make peach cobbler, peach jam or other sweet treats, get busy.

Peach season arrived about two weeks early this spring and continues to run about two weeks ahead of schedule. Freestone varieties that usually ripen later in the season are plentiful now.

That also could mean that peach season will end a little earlier than usual, said Brandi Cooley-Easler, vice president of Strawberry Hill USA in West Chesnee, north of Spartanburg. The Cooley family usually has peaches through September, but mid-September could bring the last of the crop, she said.

The Cooley family harvests about 1,000 acres and about 40 varieties of peaches in the upstate, although some were killed by a brief cold spell in April.

The quality of the fruit this year is outstanding, she said.

“They’ve been kissed by the sun so they’re sweet,” she said. “It’s a short season so come and get them soon.”

Many of the Strawberry USA peaches are sold at the family’s markets: the Shed at the farm or at the Gaffney Market.

The Shed is an old peach shed where customers “can sit in rockers and see peaches brought in on the tractor, fresh from the field, Cooley-Easler said. A café there is open year-round, serving Southern delicacies such as made-from-scratch biscuits.

Both markets also sell other produce, including blackberries, watermelons, squash and cucumbers.

Some peaches are shipped to other parts of the country. Several days ago, two trucks were being loaded to take the sweet fruit to New Jersey, Michigan and Ohio.

Strawberry Hill USA will hold its Southern Peach Festival July 21-22 at the farm. The festivities begin at 9 a.m. July 21, with live entertainment, a peach-eating contest, barbecue, fresh churned ice cream, carnival rides and a peach bake-off. Gospel music starts at 5 p.m. On July 22 beginning at noon, there will be a car show, ice cream and gospel music.

Joe Watson, one of the owners of Watsonia Farms in Monetta, said freestones at his Monetta farm ripened a week or two early also.

“They’re sweet as they can be,” he said. “They have high sugar, and they’re excellent quality.”

About 22 varieties of peaches are grown on 900 acres on the farm, which is near where Saluda, Lexington and Aiken counties join. The Watsons also grow organic yellow and white peaches, squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, asparagus, eggplant, tomatoes; sweet potatoes, collards, strawberries and plums.

South Carolina is the nation’s second-largest peach producer, topped only by California. Even through neighbor Georgia calls itself the “Peach State,” the S.C. Peach Council calls South Carolina “the tastier peach state.”

“South Carolina farmers already have shipped more than 1,000 tractor trailer loads — close to 40 million pounds — of peaches so far, more than double that of Georgia,” said Desmond Layne, a Clemson University horticulture professor said in a June 25 news release. The peach crop value exceeds $90 million in a good year, Layne said.

The Peach Council and the S.C. Department of Agriculture will be honoring the sweet fruit with Peach Day at the Market on July 14 at the State Farmers Market in West Columbia. Visitors at the Farmers Shed will be treated to a free South Carolina peach.

Here are some tips from the S.C. Peach Council:

* Peaches are temperature-sensitive so keep them on a counter top at room temperature for them to ripen. The color of the peach doesn’t indicate ripeness. Judge ripeness by the fragrant aroma and having no green around the stem.

* South Carolina peaches are a good source of vitamin C and also contain fiber and vitamin A. In addition to being delicious, they are low in calories, fat-free and sodium-free.