A summer without peaches in Georgia

A darkness has settled over the shoemaker’s belt. You can hardly find a peach.

A mildly warm winter followed by a series of severe frosts in March devastated Georgia’s peach crop. Some hopeful state officials estimate that only 10 percent of the crop survived. But out in the field, the prospects seem even worse.

“If we got 2 percent of a crop, I’d be surprised,” said Jeff Cook, coordinator for cooperative expansion at the University of Georgia, who helped put together an application for state aid. Last week, the US Department of Agriculture approved the application, designating 18 Georgia counties as natural disaster areas and putting another 38 counties under consideration for federal loans. The cost to the state, including lost jobs and peach sales, could total $200 million, according to Cook.

In a state where eating a peach over the kitchen sink is a birthright, cobbler recipes are passed down from generation to generation, and a bewildering number of streets in Atlanta bear the Peachtree name, a summer without peaches is unimaginable.

There is little relief in the orchards of neighboring South Carolina, which grows more than twice as many peaches as Georgia, but has lost 75 percent or more of this year’s harvest.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Lanier Pearson, whose family grows 3,000 acres of peaches in Fort Valley, Georgia. “We’ve never seen anything like it.” Even my father-in-law, who’s in his 70s and has been farming his whole life, can’t remember a year that was this bad.”

The few peaches available at Atlanta-area farmers’ markets are selling for almost double last year’s prices. Organic peaches sell for nearly $2 a piece. Local fruit is so scarce that some Georgia grocery stores only stock California peaches, which is like playing “Sweet Caroline” at Yankee Stadium.

Although far more peaches are grown in California and South Carolina, loyalty to the Georgia peach is strong. Stephen Satterfield, the chef at Miller Union in Atlanta, has no plans to fill his precious quota of just two cases a week with out-of-state peaches.

Instead, he builds recipes around the deficit. Claudia V. Martínez, the restaurant’s pastry chef, slices peaches extra thin before serving them with cornmeal cake and buttermilk ice cream. Tomatoes and cucumbers play a leading role in a peach salad with lemon ricotta, herbs and crunchy granola. The bartender thinks about how to use peach stones in non-alcoholic cocktails.

There is a bright spot in an otherwise difficult year for southern peaches. “I have to say that what little is available is really great,” said Mr. Satterfield.

Some cooks just give up. Erika Council, who runs a breakfast spot called Bomb Biscuits in Atlanta, grew up eating Southern peaches. Her grandmother is Mildred Council, better known as Mama Dip, who opened a popular restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and went on to write two cookbooks.

Ms. Council is making jam with pineapple or melon instead of peaches, and customers will have to wait until next year for her Peach Reaper Sauce, which is made with Georgia peaches and Carolina Reaper peppers.

Peach prices, she said, “are so damn high I’d have to use canned or frozen produce, and I’m not going to do that.”

In a pinch, some Georgia peach purists will turn to South Carolina, which is the second largest producer of peaches after California. (Just a reminder: In 2022, 475,000 tons of peaches were grown in California, dwarfing South Carolina’s 67,400 tons and Georgia’s 24,800 tons.)

In the two southern states, a similar terroir and long, hot summer days produce complex, sweet, and fragrant fruit. Many of the varieties grown are also the same. Sometimes even the practiced Southerner who eats peaches cannot tell the difference.

Despite the rivalry over whose taste is better, states are on the same page when it comes to fending off the peaches from the north or west. “We have friendly competition, but we want people to buy peaches from the Southeast,” said Eva Moore, communications director for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.

The pain of the South is also being felt in New England, where the trees have endured variable weather conditions that included a bloom-killing cold snap in February that saw temperatures plummet below zero.

“I don’t think there’s a peach in New England,” said Joe Czajkowski, who has a few acres of fruit trees on his farm in Hadley, Massachusetts.

Between there and the south, however, lies one success story: New Jersey, where this summer’s peach harvest is great. The weather was perfect, with no excessive rain that could make peaches soggy, said Pegi Adam of the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council.

“But,” she said, “it shouldn’t be said that South Jersey’s loss is Jersey’s gain.”

California is also experiencing a particularly good year. “We were lucky,” said Chelsea Ketelsen, whose family runs HMC Farms south of Fresno. “We’ve had a cooler summer than normal, so we have higher than normal sugar levels.”

Like other California farms, HMC is doing its best to fill statewide gaps caused by poor supply in the South. And while Ms. Ketelsen has nothing but respect for Georgia peach advocates, she urges them to take a chance.

“If you have to settle for California,” she said, “this is the year to do it.”

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