Growing our state fruit
Photography by Jeff Amberg
Peaches. It’s hard to think of summer without imagining the sweetest of summer fruits — biting into a sweet, juicy peach is one of those moments that makes the summer heat worth it. And in South Carolina, peaches rule.
While at one time the peach was a bumper crop for Georgia farmers, it’s been some time since the so-called “Peach State” out-produced South Carolina, now called the “Tastier Peach State.” In fact, one farm in South Carolina produces more peaches annually than the entire state of Georgia. With more than 18,000 acres of peach-producing acres, the Palmetto State is second only to California in total peach production.
The history of the peach in South Carolina dates back to the 1500s when, allegedly, it was brought to the area by Spanish explorers. It is a native fruit of China where it has grown for more than 4,000 years. Commercial production began in the 1850s and continued to expand during the 1920s as farmers looked for alternatives to growing cotton. The largest yield came in 1984 at 480,000 tons, the same year that the state legislature named the peach as South Carolina’s official fruit.
While the acreage and production is somewhat lower than those heyday years, peaches are still a significant part of the agricultural life of South Carolina. One of the larger farms is Titan Farms, situated along an area known as “The Ridge,” where nearly 80 percent of the state’s peaches are grown. In Lexington County, Taylor’s Produce is the place for many folks to purchase local peaches. Kathy, Wayne and Larry Taylor operate Taylor Family Farms in Leesville. It is a risky business that can be severely impacted by weather conditions. “We’re about the only peach farm left in Lexington County,” says Kathy. “We’ve had mostly good years, but some years, hail has hit us pretty hard. Other years, it’s been a late freeze.”
It’s a crop that is extremely labor intensive. “Peach trees just don’t sit there all year,” she adds. “They have to be pruned, thinned, fertilized and sprayed.”
Because Taylor Family Farms has a year-round open-air market in addition to their farm, they have a loyal following, with many customers coming the same time each year to get a specific variety of peach. “We have about 30 different varieties,” says Kathy. “The different varieties require various days to produce as they ripen May through September. Certain varieties perform better in one area than another.”
Cling peaches are usually the first of the season to ripen; the name refers to the fruits that hang on to the pit or “stone.” Freestone peaches begin to ripen in July and are considered better for canning. Varieties include Red Globe, Red Haven, Cresthaven, Georgia Bell, Loring and the old time Elberta that still has a large following.
When selecting a peach, the South Carolina Peach Council suggests the following: look for a creamy yellow shade, a pleasant smell and fruit that is firm to the touch. The rosy color of a peach indicates the variety, not how ripe it may be. Allow peaches to ripen on the kitchen counter; never place them in a refrigerator until they are fully ripe. To freeze and enjoy later, place slices into a freezer bag and sweeten with two tablespoons of sugar per cup of peaches. Allow the bag to sit for 20 minutes to extract juice from the peach, then place in the freezer.
There are so many different ways to enjoy a peach — peach salsa, pickled peaches, peach cobbler, peach crisp, peach pound cake … and the list goes on. It’s a healthy fruit, and it’s not in season year-round, Kathy reminds. “You just have to enjoy it when you can get it.”