Historical Retrospective of SC’s Peach Industry

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South Carolina offers more than a “peachy” place for retirees and visitors to enjoy leisurely time strolling on the beaches and skiing on the mountain slopes.

It’s more than a place for South Carolinians to enjoy an extremely good quality of life. Because of its temperate climate, rich soil, and sloping terrain, South Carolina abounds with an abundance of fresh, tasty peaches from May to September. The “Tastier Peach State” has a long heritage of peach production which was begun by pioneers who had the foresight and the wherewithal to try something new—an alternative to the waning row crop industry of the early 1900s.

Commercial peach production in South Carolina dates from the 1860s, but today peaches are grown in three main areas of the state—the “Ridge”, the “Coastal Plain” and the “Piedmont”. The Ridge is in the south central area, the Coastal Plain runs along the eastern shore, and the Piedmont runs along the northwest region of the state. Peaches were discovered in South Carolina as early as the late 1600s and 1700s, but Henry William Ravenel of Aiken is credited as the first reported commercial shipper in 1859, and Colonel R.B. Watson, South Carolina’s first Commissioner of Agriculture, is credited as the first commercial peach producer to ship peaches out-of-the-state in 1870s.

There are an estimated 30-40 varieties of peaches grown in South Carolina.The Red Globe remains the most favored. Some of our growers market to canneries and some to baby food companies, like Heinz and Gerber, but most of the commercial peaches are grown for the fresh peach market.

In an average year over 200 million pounds of peaches are harvested in South Carolina valued at $35 million. In the last few years, the value has been down to between $20-$30 million because of droughts and other weather conditions.

South Carolina, often considered the “Tastier Peach State,” has a total of approximately 18,000 acres of peaches. Nationally, South Carolina ranks #2 in fresh peach production and interstate shipments. Georgia ranks #3 nationally in fresh production. At one time, one county in South Carolina could produce more commercially-grown fresh peaches than the entire state of Georgia.

The Ridge

The Ridge area of South Carolina includes the south central counties of Aiken, Edgefield, Lexington, and Saluda. A leading peach region of the state, the Ridge derives its name from the range of sloping hills that transcend the area. Cold air seeks the lowest point, and the Ridge provides good drainage for the air which seeps into the valleys on either side.

Growers in the Ridge area of South Carolina began peach production as an alternative crop for an additional source of income after the boll weevil took a bite out of the cotton industry. Farmers in the area during the 1920s and 30s found another alternative crop in asparagus to extend their row crop profit. Peach trees replaced small asparagus farms when the competition from other states and inclement weather squeezed South Carolina out of the asparagus market.

Gerald Watson was one of the area’s peach packing pioneers—the first on the Ridge to change his total operation completely from wooden crates to corrugated boxes. Today, peach packers in the state have installed state-of-the-art equipment to process peaches such as hydro coolers which cool down the field heat in the pulp around the kernel.

The economy of the Ridge depends on peaches as an economic base for the business community. At one time, peach season was considered sort of a Christmas in the Ridge, because, like the Christmas season, most of the area’s economic activity took place during peach season.

South Carolina peach producers are proud of what they do. They want to produce the best, most nutritious, healthiest, safest product that they can for the consumer.

Coastal Plain

Weather is the most critical condition for growing crops. If the weather changes even one or two degrees, it could make or break a crop. Some growers have wind machines which help to keep the fragile peach blooms from freezing. Peach growers also have other modern-day production methods and equipment to help in their quest for quality peaches— from better varieties to peach tree shakers which reduce the number of peaches on trees for bigger and better peaches. It’s sort of a “survival of the fittest”—-the best remaining on the limbs to allow room for growth of the others.

Peach growers follow the production rules and regulations as closely as possible to ensure that their peaches are healthy and nutritious. Through the “eagle eyes” of both the South Carolina Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Agriculture, South Carolina peaches and other produce are monitored to assure both the seller and the receiver that quality fresh fruits and vegetables are being traded.

The SCDA supplies certified quality inspectors who are under the supervision of a licensed USDA quality control inspector. All of our inspectors are schooled properly to insure their awareness of the Federal guidelines under which they operate. In addition to the quality inspection service offered in South Carolina, the SCDA Laboratory in Columbia performs regular residue tests of fresh fruits and vegetables from South Carolina producers as well as from produce shipped into our retail and wholesale facilities. Because of the care and concern of peach producers, consumers can rest assured that they are receiving the best produce possible.

The “Piedmont”

Like those in the Ridge area, growers in the Piedmont which includes Cherokee, Chesterfield, Greenville, Spartanburg, and York Counties, found an additional profit crop in peaches. They, too, planted peach trees which became a thriving part of agriculture in that area. In the early 1900s, a group of entrepreneurs with names like Smith, Gramling, Johnson, Gaines, Hyder, Seay, and Cash, collectively joined forces and entered peach production. In 1924, the first rail car load of peaches made its way over the rolling hills of the Piedmont into other states of the nation. Gramling Brothers, Inc., continues the peach tradition of their great grandfather, Ben M. Gramling, who planted 500 peach trees in 1921 at what is known as Gramling Siding in the Piedmont County of Spartanburg.

Their grandfather often said, “Let’s build a monument to the boll weevil for getting us into the peach business.” By the end of the late 30s, there were over 250 commercial peach packing plants in the Piedmont alone. Inclement weather and the short-life peach syndrome have caused many to reduce acreage and diversify over the years, but there are still plenty of fresh peaches on the trees in South Carolina. It’s a little like ‘Larry, Darryl, and Darryl’, you must diversify to remain profitable in any segment of agriculture today. The trend of fewer, but larger acreage peach farms is considerably widespread throughout the peach growing areas.

Growers in the Piedmont have a distinct advantage over those in the Ridge area. If the peach industry declines on the Ridge, there is nothing else to take its place. In the Piedmont, farm land sells at a premium for the rising population growth that comes with industrialization. The land in the Piedmont is valuable for residential and commercial development, but it’s only a one-time capital gain for the seller. Those who work the peach orchards and packing plants and other businesses which survive on the peach industry lose gainful employment and revenue.

South Carolina only has about 10 peach packing sheds left. That’s down from about 125 when peaches were at peak in the state. Each packing shed requires about 100 to 150 people to pack and ship peaches. That’s at least1,000 people in the community directly dependent on packing peaches. Add to that, those businesses which rely on service and supply, and the numbers of jobs and revenue increases significantly. Peaches are so revered in some areas of South Carolina that festivals are held honoring the regal Palmetto peach. There is also a water tower in Gaffney, South Carolina, called the “Peachoid”, which advertises the economic power of the Palmetto peach to passers-by.

Consumers today expect more out of what they buy, and that is why South Carolina growers have improved and are continuing to improve their peach quality. The sugar level is superb, making South Carolina peaches sweeter and tastier. South Carolina growers can get peaches from the tree to the table in three days or less. That’s almost as fresh as picking peaches from the tree.

In a normal growing year, a combination of favorable growing conditions, good production methods, and good marketing techniques makes South Carolina peaches the “Tastier Peaches. Our peach growers are good businessmen. They are willing to adapt to present and future market conditions, and they pay special attention to market trends. The Piedmont has just the right mix for growing good peaches, because the mountains protect the foothills from cold weather blasts from the west, and there is plenty of elevation and plenty of water.

Some growers have high density plots with 400 trees per acre as opposed to the traditional 100 per acre. The advantages of this system includes: earlier production for peach trees (peaches can be picked on the 2nd year rather than the 3rd), 37% more peach bearing per acre, and more efficient utilization of the land.

Kline Cash, a peach grower in Cowpens, SC, is optimistic about youth entering farming as a career. He says that his own son is a graduate of Clemson University, but that he came back to the peach orchards—back to his roots on the farm. Kline Cash is a family man and is deeply concerned about family and the continuity of family farming and rural life. He says, “There are many rewards in having your family on a farm. We all enjoy farming. I never want to change careers, because I love life on the farm. Peaches are what I know best, and as long as I can grow good, quality peaches and make a profit, I will stay in this business.”

South Carolina growers know that they must be flexible and change with the times. Mr. Cash says that the trend today is more market-oriented, not volume-oriented. We now have better, more efficient equipment—such as electronic weight sizers which give us good accurate, consistent weights for those attractive, large, red peaches which are in demand by consumers.

For generations, peaches have been a valuable asset to agriculture in South Carolina. Peaches mean different things to different people. To some, peach production means continuing the legacy inherited from their ancestors—those who found an opportunity and cultivated a marketable commodity in peaches. For others, it means a good, profitable business and an economic base for the community. To others, it is a way of life in South Carolina. And, still for others, it means a fresh, sweet, succulent peach which delivers a burst of flavor on the first bite. Whatever the meaning, peaches have a place in the hearts of South Carolinians and in the eyes (and tastebuds) of those in other states and other nations who covet their quality and taste.