From Carolina peaches to Georgia blueberries, The South diversifies.
Strawberries grown in the South, aside from national producer Florida, are largely sold locally, many of them at roadside farm stands or u-pick farms.
Muscadine grapes are such a closely held regional secret that most Yanks would not even know how to properly begin eating them.
But when the peaches, blueberries, and melons of all sorts are ripe and ready to pick, southern fruit fills the shelves of supermarkets everywhere west of the Mississippi, including into Canada.
“I would say that more than half of the country is serviced by spring and summer southern fruits and veggies once Florida begins to transition north to Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina,” says Andrew Scott, vice president of marketing and business development at Nickey Gregory Company, Atlanta. “Georgia Grown has increased in volume over the years, especially blueberries and other non-traditional crops. Peaches, blueberries, watermelons and cantaloupes are the most popular fruits grown in Georgia, with blueberries taking over as the top producer. Blueberry acreage is on the rise in South Georgia.”
The Peach State Of Mind
Peaches are so important in southern agriculture that larger growers in Carolina and Georgia plant dozens of varieties in their orchards, in order to ship fresh picked, tree ripened fruit over the longest possible period of time. “Our peach season lasts around 16 to 17 weeks,” says Chalmers Carr, owner-operator of Titan Peach Farms, Columbia, SC. “We start around mid-May and continue into the second week in September. We grow more than 50 commercial varieties of peaches.”
With more than 5,000 acres, Titan is the largest peach grower in South Carolina, and the second largest in the country. “There’s probably more than 100 varieties of peaches grown in South Carolina, including probably 40 or 50 commercial varieties,” says Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of agriculture in South Carolina, Columbia, SC. Although the peach varieties are generally selected to fill specific time slots, there is a family of favorites.
“We have our Freestone peaches,” says Duke Lane III, partner in Genuine Georgia, a partnership among Lane Southern Orchards, Pearson Farm, Fitzgerald Fruit Farms, Taylor Orchards, and Dickey Farms. “In Georgia, we call the Freestone the peach that made Georgia the Peach State.”
Genuine Georgia ships Freestone varieties from the middle of June through August, but extends the season with 30 to 35 peach varieties, each lasting no longer than 10 days to three weeks, according to Lane.
There is a regional pride in the peaches brought forth from orchards in southern soils, and sunny but humid climate. “If you eat a good southern peach in June or July, the juice runs down your chin,” says Benjie Richter, co-owner of Richter and Co., Charlotte, SC. “We promote southern peaches. The South Carolina and Georgia peach has a different eating quality, because of the sugar to acid ratio, the humidity and the soil. It has a lot to do with the humidity, the sun and the soil. They are juicier.” Southern peach growers have developed markets for their juicy treasure that extend virtually everywhere in North America east of the Mississippi.
“We go primarily to the Southeast, but we go from Florida to Eastern Canada, from Texas to Kansas City, and the Great Lakes area,” says Richter. “California takes care of west of the Rockies, but most of our fruit comes off the tree and can be at the store in 24 to 48 hours. It’s fresher. Local is good for us. Four hundred to five hundred miles away is still pretty fresh.” Some Georgia peach shippers have found markets, beyond the Mississippi on the far side of the continent. “We have customers as far as Western Canada, and down into Montana,” says Lane.
People associated with peaches in South Carolina are frequently quick to let you know that they, and not Georgia, are the leading peach producer in the South, although they are also quick to say they have nothing against their neighbor. “Georgia got the name as the peach state, because they were the first to ship peaches, but we produce more than twice as much as they do,” says Eubanks. “We do still play well together. They’re generally a little earlier than us, then we overlap for a while.”
South Carolina peaches reach Eastern markets in May, and the number of varieties is enough to keep the fresh fruit coming until late summer.
“We are No. 1 in peaches in the South,” says Eubanks. “We start to harvest in mid-May, and we’ll run into September. June, July and August are the peak months. We ship throughout the Southeast, to the Mid-Atlantic and New England, and we get into the Midwest to Illinois and Minnesota. The bulk is sold east of the Mississippi River.”
The weather looks to have cooperated this year, as after an unusually warm fall led to anxiety about chilling hours, the beginning of the year brought the cold peach trees needed.
“We’re looking really good,” says Lynne Chappell, owner of Chappell Farms, Barnwell, SC. “October through December was record warm, but we had a lot of chill in January and February. We’re all getting our chilling units.”
Even growers who aim for a particular time slot within the lengthy peach season, like Chappell Farms, have enough varieties to offer a steady supply of fresh fruit.
“We start around the 15th of May, give or take five days,” says Chappell. “We’re at the southern end of South Carolina, so we get in early and get out early. We finish shipping in mid-July, around the 15th of July. We grow 22 varieties of peaches. You have different varieties so you can have consistent volume. We ship as far west as Houston, and up to Chicago and Detroit in the Midwest, and Montreal and Toronto in Canada.”
Blueberries On The Rise
Georgia earned a reputation as a pioneer peach shipper, but the state has emerged in recent years as the nation’s leading producer of blueberries.
“Georgia produced the most pounds of blueberries in the nation in 2014, and we think we’ll be close in 2015,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, LeGrange, GA. “Blueberries are our number one fruit crop in Georgia, and have been for some time.”
As far back as 2009 blueberries exceeded $100 million in farm gate revenue in Georgia, according to Hall, while peaches brought the state’s farmers a more modest $60 million. “The blueberries will start in late May and go until mid- to late July,” says Hall. “We’ve increased acreage and production of blueberries. We’ve seen tremendous growth; we ship everywhere east of the Mississippi.”
Fed by its reputation as a superfood with many important nutrients, this fruit is opening opportunities for farmers throughout the region.
“Our blueberry volume is increasing; we have growers who are putting in more acreage of blueberries,” says Sonny Dickinson, assistant director of marketing and retail merchandising at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Columbia, SC.
Cornucopia Of Fruits
There is almost endless variety to the fruits coming from southern fields and orchards in the warmer months, with all sorts of melons closely following peaches and blueberries.
“We grow watermelons and cantaloupes,” says Nick Augostini, assistant director of marketing at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Raleigh, NC. “In the fall we have apples. Blueberries are a big one, and we do grow some blackberries, honeydews and Muscadine grapes. The Sprite melon you could probably get from mid-June through September.” North Carolina has a highly successful promotional campaign that helps merchandise this variety of fruits over much of the country.
“We started a ‘Got to be NC’ program eight or nine years ago,” says Augostini. “The Goodness Grows in NC campaign works from the Mississippi east, and from Maine to Florida. Any time we go into a store we give them POP materials.” Their neighbors have also developed brand merchandising that helps to promote the fruit. “We have a logo we put into the stores that says ‘Certified South Carolina grown,’” says Dickinson. “We have a sign we put into the stores that says S.C. Grown on the front and, on the back, ‘It’s a Matter of Taste.’”
Although peaches are number one, South Carolina also has a variety of melons reaching the shelves in the summer. “I work primarily promoting peaches and watermelons,” says Dickinson. “South Carolina produces more peaches than anyone else on the East Coast; we produce twice as many peaches as Georgia. We are second only to California. All of the major supermarkets in the Southeast, and particularly in South Carolina, buy our fruit in season.” Most states in the region have developed effective promotional campaigns that help merchandise their fruit throughout the Southeast, and even the Northeast and Midwest.
“Each southern state does a great job of promoting their own fruits and veggies, such as Georgia Grown and Fresh from Florida,” says Scott from Nickey Gregory. “These state-run marketing organizations do a great of promoting their fresh produce items to a national audience.”
In many areas of the South, strawberries are effectively merchandised as fresh, local fruit. “A lot of our strawberries are sold in state,” says Augostini. “What might be ‘local’ in California would be regional here, because of the length of that state.”
Georgia farmers, too, have developed highly local markets for their fresh strawberries. “Strawberries start in late March or April, but most of them are pick your own,” says Hall.
The most local southern fruit, however, could be a grape that most of the country would not even know how to eat. “The Muscadine grapes are in September or October, but that’s fairly specialized in the Southeast,” says Hall. “Most New Yorkers don’t know how you eat Muscadine grapes. You suck out the juice, throw away the skin, and pick the seeds out from between your teeth.”
The Lane Orchard in Fort Valley, GA., has a small patch of strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, apples, and kiwi that also includes Muscadines, as well as the related Scuppernong grapes.
“That’s more of a local thing,” says Lane, “for people who come to the farm.”
Let Them Know, And They Will Buy
There are almost as many ways to merchandise southern fruits as there are supermarkets. “Each retailer does their own different thing,” says Benjie Richter, co-owner of Richter and Co., Charlotte, SC. “On peaches we usually get a good end display. We do have one retailer who does a barbecue display with Vidalia onions, corn on the cob, and peaches.”
In season some stores find it effective to build a section within produce featuring fruits and vegetables from the home state. “Locally, here in Atlanta, why not have a Georgia Grown section in the grocery store promoting the farmers and their products,” says Andrew Scott, vice president of marketing and business development at Nickey Gregory Company, Atlanta. “One retail store in Atlanta has big pictures of the farmer next to displays of the farmer’s products. These fruits can be merchandised as locally grown, especially in the spring, in April, May and into June.”
From South Carolina, peaches, in particular, have developed a following based on their origin. “We think the South Carolina name sells well,” says Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner of agriculture in South Carolina, Columbia, SC. “People look for our fruit in all the places we market. We see great market opportunities because of the eating quality of our peaches.” A few retailers will build a display of fruit from the entire region, rather than a particular state.
“We do have some markets that put together a southern fruit display,” says Sonny Dickinson, assistant director of marketing and retail merchandising at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, Columbia, SC.
Regional or state fruit brands carry weight in much of the country, because southern fruit is closer and fresher. “A product can make it from Georgia to Indiana in two days,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, LeGrange, GA. “If we’re up against Jersey Fresh or some other local program people wouldn’t respond that favorably; but the Georgia name generally does pretty well.”
Some of the fruit is sold as either from the South, or from a particular state within the region. “With the buy local thing being a big angle, most of it is sold as ‘From North Carolina,’” says Nick Augostini, assistant director of marketing at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Raleigh, NC. “Some of the cantaloupe is sold as Eastern, and also as North Carolina.”
In some cases retailers decide the relative effectiveness of merchandising the region, a state, or a brand. “The peaches all have a PLU label with the brand Titan, Carolina Beauty or Summer Snack on them,” says Chalmers Carr, owner-operator of Titan Peach Farms, Columbia, SC. “The retailers sell them as southern or South Carolina peaches. Most of them prefer South Carolina.”
This shipper uses packaging that has room for a promotional message, and encourages larger volume purchases.
“We sell bulk displays, gusseted bags and clamshells,” says Carr. “Gusseted bags with two pounds of peaches are gaining a lot of popularity. People got used to them with grapes and cherries. There’s enough room to print a message, but because they are not clamshells people feel you’re not wasting so much on packaging. The retailer gets a bigger ring from the consumer; they’re selling two pounds of peaches.”
One state even has a campaign that lets the merchandising begin in the parking lot, even before customers enter the store. “We have a four-foot tall street talker that says S.C. Grown,” says Dickinson. “People may see that sign out front when they get out of the car, before they even get into the store. We started our program seven years ago, and we already have a 67 percent recognition for the brand within South Carolina. Our fruit sales are increasing.”