SOUTHEAST PEACHES

Originally printed in the March 2019 issue of Produce Business.

Taste, logistics advantages help bring profits to retailers.

Flavor and accessibility are what differentiate peaches grown in the Southeast from other U.S. growing regions. From spring through the end of summer, growers in the Southeast are harvesting and shipping peaches. When the Southeast season begins, peaches become of high importance to retailers who move high volumes of fruit.

Throughout the Southern region — from Florida and Alabama through Georgia and South Carolina to West Virginia — growers produce a tasty piece of fruit that is highly desired by retail buyers. Because of their geographic location, Southeast growers can quickly ship peaches to supermarkets servicing a large East Coast population.

At Abingdon, VA-based K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc., which operates 131 stores in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky, Southeast peaches account for 40 percent of the chain’s stone fruit volume in June, July and August. “Southeast peaches are a very important part of our stone fruit business,” says Keith Cox, produce category manager. “When you compare Southern peaches to California peaches, for us, 90 percent of our peach volume is Southern peaches. It really gives you a good idea of how important it is to have a Southern peach during those three months.”

Peach production begins in Florida in mid- to late March and shipments run through mid-May, when harvesting in Georgia usually begins. South Carolina, the leading East Coast producer of peaches, generally begins in mid- to late May.

“During that four-month period, from May through August, a time people know is synonymous with good peaches, you, as a retailer, really want to be known as a peach destination,” says Will McGehee, a partner with Genuine Georgia Group, based in Fort Valley, GA. “A Southern peach has an amazing amount of sugar. We promote Georgia but feel like we’re in a larger community in the Southeast. We want to make sure our customers have a good supply of Southeast peaches.”

TASTY FRUIT FOR WINTER BLUES

The Southeast fruit brings a taste of spring and summer to winter-weary Northeast shoppers. “When customers see these peaches coming in, they get excited, as it’s a prelude to our Jersey peaches and the first signs of summer,” says Sal Selletto, produce manager at the Super Foodtown of Sea Girt, NJ, a part of the Middletown, NJ-based Food Circus/Foodtown. “By that time, shoppers are kind of sick of the winter fruits and want to transition to the summer fruit. We put them up front, on center stage.”

Southeast peaches have been growing in reputation because of improving taste, according to Lake City, SC-based W. Lee Flowers & Co., Inc., a wholesale grocery provider and an operator of a chain of 65 IGA stores from North Carolina to Georgia. Last year, peaches jumped to the chain’s top three categories, joining the ranks of bananas and strawberries, says Mychael Thomas, director of produce. “Peaches are important because they’re local for us in the South,” he says. “We are proud to move as many as we have in the past. We try to push our local product as soon as it comes in season. That gives our customers and guests the taste they want. Being closer to home, peaches generate sales for us.”

Southeast peaches are known for their flavor. “A fresh, sweet Georgia peach is the most flavorful peach you can eat,” says Julie McPeake, chief communications officer for the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA). “That’s no accident. A lot of things have perfectly come together to give our peaches their one-of-a-kind legendary flavor. Our hot summer nights and high humidity allow our peaches to produce sugar all day and night. Most other growing regions cool down at night, and the peaches take a break from producing sugar. This cooling down at night is known to enhance a peach’s red color, but it stops crucial sugar development.”

Greencastle, PA-based Keystone Fruit Marketing sells peaches from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “The entire East Coast grows high-quality, high-color and great-tasting peaches,” says Mike Blume, director of sales and marketing. “What has changed over the years, other than the quality getting better and being more consistent, is the Southern region has expanded to the East Coast. New Jersey always had a great reputation for peaches, but now areas like Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania are getting recognized as having excellent peaches, too.”

Florida’s peaches help generate spring interest in domestic peaches, says Mindy Lee, Fresh from Florida communications and media manager for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). “Florida growers aren’t looking to supplant other markets,” she says. “They want to complement the peach category by filling the gap between South American and traditional North American markets with consistent volume.”

AN EATING EXPERIENCE

Southeast peaches possess eating characteristics retailers desire, says Benjie Richter, partner with Charlotte, NC-based Richter and Co., Inc., which markets for growers in South Carolina, Alabama and West Virginia. “Our fruit does eat better than the Western fruit, due to our climate,” he says. “Our fruit has more juice. It has a different sugar-acid ratio, which gives us a real peach flavor.” Giving shoppers choice, many retailers like to merchandise East Coast and West Coast fruit, says Richter. “We welcome that because our fruit competes very well,” he says. “The retailers like the fact our fruit is different.” Sometimes, retailers may merchandise Southern peaches for considerably lower prices than California fruit, says Richter.

The South’s growing and harvesting practices help produce quality peaches, says Bob Von Rohr, director of marketing for Glassboro, NJ-based Sunny Valley International, Inc., which markets South Carolina and New Jersey peaches. “For the most part, with the Southern peach, knowing they stay on the tree longer than possibly other areas, shoppers get more of a ready-to-eat peach from the South than from other areas,” he says.

A big advantage of Southeastern fruit is logistics. “We have an extreme advantage in freight costs to sell to Eastern markets,” says Matt Cornwell, sales account manager for Titan Farms, which grows and ships from Ridge Spring, SC. New regulations have increased trucking rates. “South Carolina’s location makes it ideal to service all major markets,” he says. “Fruit can be delivered to major markets in the Northeast, Midwest and the South in only a day or two, providing buyers and customers with fruit that came off the tree only a few days before it hits the shelves. By utilizing Southern fruit, buyers can save an average of $2 to $4 per case of fruit in freight costs versus the West Coast.”

Full trucks or LTLs can be coordinated for next day deliveries to most locations in the East and Midwest.

“Transportation, although difficult at times, is a huge advantage for selling and buying Southern and Eastern peaches,” says Keystone Fruit Marketing’s Blume. “The Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions offer many customers on the East Coast and Midwest next-day delivery, and for others, second-day delivery. There are excellent growers in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To be able to pick, cool, pack, ship, and deliver all within a few days is ideal for buyers and, most importantly, consumers.”

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