Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Love a juicy peach? You're in luck

By Elliott Minor
The Associated Press

BARNEY, Ga. - When Army retiree Elmer Albritton and his wife Betty get a craving for sweet Georgia peaches, they head to a rustic, roadside market with an old red barn, hay bales and wagons loaded with the fuzzy fruit.

"The peaches, fruit and vegetables are delicious," said Betty Albritton, as they filled a half-bushel bag at Burton Brooks Orchards, one of south Georgia's leading peach producers.

The 80-mile roundtrip from their home might seem like a long way to go for peaches, but the reward is juicy, especially this year.

Nearly ideal growing conditions have given many Georgia growers their best crop in five years, said Katherine Taylor, a University of Georgia peach specialist.

"We lucked up in all kinds of ways," Taylor said.

Georgia is known as the Peach State, but it vies with South Carolina for second place among the nation's top producers.The value of each state's crop ranges from $32 to $36 million a year.

California grows about eight times more than either southern state.

South Carolina growers, hurt by late frost and heavy rain, will have fewer peaches this year, although the quality should be excellent, said Martin Eubanks, a senior commodities merchandiser with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.

"Georgia has a very good crop. Our fruit is coming in, so there's going to be plenty of fruit in the Southeast for the consumer," he said. "We're anticipating good size. We've seen very good color and flavor has been outstanding. Taste is what sells Southern peaches."

Georgia's crop is rated 95 percent good and 5 percent fair, while South Carolina's is rated 21 percent excellent, 65 percent good, 10 percent fair, 3 percent poor and 2 percent very poor.

Georgia's winter was unusually cold, giving peach trees the "chill hours" they require for spring flowering. Middle Georgia, where the bulk of the crop is grown, had ideal conditions for pollination. That was followed by timely showers and a relatively cool spring to pump up the fruit's size and give it good color.

"All of those things have set up to give us a beautiful peach," Taylor said.

Barney, located 220 miles southeast of Atlanta, is a center for peach production in south Georgia, with about 20 percent of the state's crop.

The bulk - about 80 percent - is grown around Fort Valley, about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta.

The harvest is winding down in south Georgia, but middle-Georgia growers, who began harvesting about a month ago, expect to have peaches through mid August.

"The bottom line ... is that we have a nice crop," said Bill McGee of Big Six Farms near Fort Valley. "Anytime we're over 90 percent of our potential, we call that a full crop."

The packing sheds, where the fruit is cleaned, graded and packed for shipment, are running five or six days a week in middle Georgia, but Burton Brooks packed only a few this year.

Lynn Abbott, who manages the roadside market, said some south Georgia growers had a disappointing season. Her father, John DeWitt, grows 400-acres of peaches and other produce, and her daughter, Nicole Sinclair, helps out in the market.

"We thought we had a great season under way, but the rain in February and March ruined pollination," Abbott said. "Then we had a late freeze in March and hail in April."

Burton Brooks wound up with only 10 percent of a normal crop and soon may have to buy peaches from other growers to stock the market.

A few tourists veer off Interstate 75 and make the 8-mile drive to Barney, but most customers are regulars like the Albrittons.

Abbott said her family remains hooked on peaches, despite the bouts of hail, killer frost and torrential rain.

"It gets in your blood," she said.

Her father has diversified with peppers, yellow squash, cucumbers and zucchini to reduce the family's reliance on the fruit, but the family is best known for peaches.

"We're about all there is in Barney - peaches," Abbott said. "When you come to Barney it's us and the post office. This is a peach town."

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