The line at Brandon Smith’s booth is one of the longest at the Freedom Farmers Market on a typical muggy Saturday morning in May. Customers flock to his table, ready to exchange a few bucks for large sacks full of fat Georgia-grown peaches from Dickey Farms—the oldest continually-operating packing house in the state.
Come mid to late July though, Georgia’s iconic state fruit is going to be much harder to come by, thanks to a cataclysmic season that, according to Smith, cost the state nearly 80% of its peach yield.
And he would know. While a graduate student at Georgia State University, Smith started bagging peaches on Saturdays to earn a little pocket change and quickly realized he much preferred that to a future of corporate number crunching.
“I did an MBA in finance at Georgia State, and thought I’d be a financial analyst the rest of my life,” Smith says, “But I had a lot more fun slinging peaches at the farmers market.”
Smith now works as the local market manager for Dickey Farms, and during a normal peach season you can find him at farmers markets all around the state behind the booth for Dickey. Last year Smith also launched a separate venture, the Georgia Peach Truck, with a goal of bringing cases of Georgia’s most famous fruit to neighborhoods all along the East Coast.
“The [initial] goal was just to get it started,” Smith says. “As long as I didn’t go completely bankrupt, I wasn’t too worried about the financial side of it. It was mainly just getting a network built and operating it for a summer.”
Smith took the truck on a six-week trip and worked his way from Georgia up through Virginia and Washington DC, then into small communities in Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Customers flocked to the truck, no doubt buying into the same nostalgia that leads people above the Mason-Dixon line to believe that down here, Saturdays are spent sipping sweet tea on the front porch while fresh cobbler cools on a window sill.
“That’s one of the things that made it work,” says Smith. “It’d be like bringing [fresh] Maine lobster down to Georgia. There’s a novelty to it, a uniqueness that makes it iconic. That’s the draw.”
That, and the peaches just taste better.
“Peaches that go through a commercial supply chain typically pass through two or three hands before they ever even get on the grocery store shelf,” says Smith. “They stay in the supply chain in refrigeration too long. They’re going from a farm to a third-party distributor and then to a distribution facility for the actual retailer.”
Peaches also need to be warm to mature and ripen, says Smith, and the longer refrigeration times required by commercial distribution saps peaches of their color, juice and flavor.
Smith’s peaches, on the other hand, go from Dickey Farms straight to his truck and are on the ground in New York or Connecticut two or three days later.
“Folks [up north] would never be able to get these peaches the way we’re delivering them unless they went directly to the farms,” he says.
But anyone who visits a Georgia farm this summer will find themselves out of luck and face to face with acres of barren peach trees, as Smith and the rest of the local peach industry are having to contend with the one of the most challenging peach seasons in state history.
“During the winter, peach trees need a certain number chill hours to produce healthy fruit during the summer,” Smith says. “The trees go dormant. They literally go to sleep. And if they don’t get enough sleep hours below around 45 degrees, they wake up cranky. It causes them to produce fruit that is more prone to defects and disease. Or in an extreme year, it won’t produce much of a crop at all.”
And that’s exactly what’s happened this year. Winter’s warmer temperatures, coupled with a late freeze, nearly decimated the peach yield. Combined with the blow the state’s blueberry crop also took, local farmers are facing a near $300 million loss. Dickey Farms alone saw a 75 percent drop in peach production compared to last year—roughly two million pounds of peaches gone.
“Basically after July 4, we’re not going to have much in the way of locally-grown peaches,” says Smith. The peaches perched on produce shelves likely won’t be Georgia’s own, and could have been shipped from as far as California to get to local area grocers. Smith has halted the Georgia Peach Truck road trip for the rest of the year.
Despite the challenges, Smith and others in the peach industry remain optimistic for next year’s harvest. And Smith still remains true to the same vision he had back in college, when he made plans to swap the calculator for a peach crate: “to sell a whole lotta peaches.”
There are only a few weeks left to stock up fresh local peaches. If you want to grab some of Smith’s Dickey Farms peaches, they’ll be at the following farmers markets this week:
Tuesday, July 11
Wednesday, July 12
Thursday, July 13