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| posted on 7/28/2011 at 07:48 AM|
|Peach Rivalry Becomes War Between the Tastes|
CLEMSON, S.C. — The South has plenty of rivalries. Auburn and Alabama fight over football dominance. North Carolina and Tennessee battle over barbecue.
And then there is Georgia, which is getting kicked to the curb by South Carolina over the fruit that defines its very identity.
For more than 100 years, since Georgia first began shipping peaches beyond its borders, the state has claimed the fruit as its own.
An image of the peach is on the official state quarter and its license plates. In Atlanta, where a giant peach drops from a downtown building each New Year’s Eve, a driver can get lost among all the streets with variations on the name Peachtree.
But here is the harsh truth: South Carolina has shipped out more than twice as many peaches as Georgia so far this summer. And it has been that way for years.
It gets worse. At the end of July, the University of Georgia will officially close its peach program. The head peach horticulturist left the job a couple of years ago. When budgets tightened recently, university officials decided to simply eliminate the position altogether. (Programs for blueberries and vegetables had to go, too.)
And if that was not enough, last week Georgia’s premier peach farmers had to head across the state line to South Carolina for a regional peach conference.
“Georgia may be the peach state, but we’re the tastier peach state,” said Desmond R. Layne, an associate professor at Clemson University and the man who arranged the conference, which included a tasting of 40 varieties of peaches grown in his state.
The Georgia peach farmers, grim-faced beneath their John Deere caps, sat in the auditorium unmoved by the enthusiasm of their South Carolina counterparts. Quantity, they said, cannot replace quality.
“They’re trying to make it up in volume but they can’t best us,” said Will McGehee of Pearson Farm, pointing out that South Carolina’s nights are too cool for truly great peaches.
“The key to a good peach is a hot night,” Mr. McGehee said. “What makes it miserable for humans makes it perfect for peaches.”
Georgia began its peach dominance as the South rebuilt itself after the Civil War. In the late 1800s, the state began shipping the Elberta — a firm, yellow-fleshed peach named for a farmer’s wife — to New York and other East Coast cities.
But by the 1950s, South Carolina had taken over as the biggest peach-producing state. Now, although quantities have dropped, it ships 90,000 tons a year compared with Georgia’s 40,000 tons, according to United States Department of Agriculture statistics. (New Jersey follows with 32,000 tons.)
Georgia peach farmers have been fighting back, focusing on what they argue is a superior flavor that can come only from the unique mix of heat and red clay soil in their state.
They have taken to marketing the Georgia peach as an exclusive and seasonal item. They have even resorted to the mascot, paying someone to dress like a seven-foot peach named “Big Fuzzy.”
The brand appears to have an edge, at least among Internet users. Searches for “Georgia peaches” have outpaced those for “South Carolina peaches” by nearly 20 percent since 2004, said Sandra Heikkinen of Google.
So who really grows the best peach? In this good-natured rivalry, there may be no real way to judge. Plenty of variables determine what makes the kind of peach that drenches your hand and tastes exactly like summer. Rain, heat and soil conditions all play a part, as does the variety planted and the time from the tree to the eater’s mouth.
“I honestly don’t think you can taste a difference,” said Josh Tanner, the produce coordinator for Whole Foods stores in the South. “There is a lot of state pride and that’s what it’s about.”
But even Georgia natives have their doubts.
“I am all about the best peach,” said DeAnne Hobbs, who lives in North Carolina and grew up in Georgia. Ms. Hobbs was a fan of the Georgia peach until about 2003, when she was living in South Carolina and started eating that state’s fruit. She drives through South Carolina often and always stops for peaches, which is what she did Friday. “As much as I want to like Georgia’s, I still like these the best,” she said.
Even someone working at the Georgia Department of Agriculture had his doubts.
“I understand unofficially that the best and the most tasty peaches are in Spartanburg County in South Carolina,” he said, asking that his name not be used because he wants to hold on to his job.
Still, there are plenty of Georgia peach loyalists.
“If you can’t get a Georgia peach, you can settle for a South Carolina peach,” said Lucy Brewer, 42, a home cook and writer from Kennesaw, Ga.
On Friday, after she made a cobbler, she drove three hours to Montezuma, Ga., just to get more peaches, a box of now-rare Elbertas.
But like any feuding family, siblings unify when outsiders pose a threat. And in this case, that is California, which dominates the peach market, shipping six times as much fruit as South Carolina and Georgia combined.
“They can grow more peaches and they can grow prettier peaches but they taste like cardboard,” said Phillip Rigdon, farm manager at Lane Southern Orchards in Georgia.
Dr. Layne, the peach guru of South Carolina, agreed.
“They just don’t taste like a Southern peach.”
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