When looking at any particular situation we’re planning for, we all have a set series of outcomes in our minds: best-case scenario, worst-case scenario, somewhere in-between. And while we know the worst is possible, we tend to focus on the best and the in-between.
But when fortune’s wheel stops on worst-case, what happens then? Southeastern peach growers are digging deep to answer that question after a late season freeze at the precise wrong moment in March decimated most of this year’s crop. Do you rebound resiliently? Shake it off? Collapse? Panic? Or do you just sit down in the middle of the floor and cry?
“You do, you have that initial reaction,” said Chalmers Carr of Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, SC, the largest peach grower-packer-processor on the East Coast. “I can tell you the number of millions of dollars that one night cost us but there’s no point.”
Across the region early season varieties were virtually a complete loss. And even the most optimistic peach growers only expect to recover a fraction of their late-season crop.
In Georgia, the crop is projected to be the worst in a century, according to a USDA researcher. “The closest comparison we have right now, looking back at the historical records, has to go back all the way to the 1930s,” Tom Beckman from USDA-ARS’s Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory in Byron, GA recently told Macon, GA television station WMAZ. “We have fruit. In fact, we’ll probably have fruit throughout the season, but it’s going to be a lot less than what we could consider normal. I’d say it will be well under a half a crop.”
However, one Georgia peach grower told The Gainesville Times he expects to harvest 70 percent of his crop in Lula, GA and that the cold thinned out fruit and will result in larger peaches.
South Carolina Crop Loss Leaves Gaping Hole in Economy
In South Carolina, far and away the Southeast’s largest peach producer with an annual crop that typically provides a $300 million economic impact, the picture is gloomier.
“There’s going to be some peaches out of South Carolina from a local and commercial standpoint starting the 1st of July and going six to eight weeks. Overall the state is 10-20 percent of a crop – an average of 15 percent of the crop” across the board, Carr said.
And that comes on the heels of a growing strand of bad weather events in the Palmetto State.
“[We had] the 100-year flood in 2015, Hurricane Matthew in fall 2016, the freeze this year and people forget in 2014 we had a similar freeze on March the 25th. We lost everything for the first six weeks, but we had 100 percent of our crop the moment we started July 1. It’s a much different situation than this year. Mother Nature’s been pretty doggone tough,” Carr said.
Titan grows 5800 acres of peaches and also farms broccoli and bell pepper. Starting July 1, the company will have 25-30 percent of a normal peach crop for about six weeks. Some will be sold locally, others will go to retail partners. But nobody’s going to have many South Carolina peaches.
Titan is a true family operation with Carr and wife Lori Anne running the show. That means they had to make some difficult decisions within days of the March freeze.
The first was what to do for “the people who work for you — whether they’re full-time or part-time, it’s going to affect everybody. We actually had to send home some of our part-time workers. Last year we brought in 650 H-2A workers. This year we’re looking at a maximum of 350 people. That’s 300 people that I’ve changed their lives. When I say part-time, they’re here for nine months and we’re their sole source of income,” Carr said.
“Then you’ve got the kids who have jobs here in the summer, high school kids, you don’t hire them so their families are affected that way. The girls in the office. All you can do is make sure your family – not your blood family, my employees are family – you make sure you do the best you can by them. We had to send home 130 workers about 10 days after the freeze and we had 121 volunteers who decided they’d take the year off to make it easier on us, so we paid for them to go home and everything else like that. We immediately started talking to our workers who hadn’t come yet and got the word out to them. Some of them have been able to go find jobs in Mexico or on other farms up here.”
‘You Don’t Want to Destroy Markets’
That process took a week. The next topic was damage control. With the summer and fall broccoli and bell pepper crops still in play, acreage was increased “to give our workers more to do and hopefully negate some of the economic losses that we’re taking. We have the resources now with peaches out of the way, we freed up management, equipment, packing space, everything else. You don’t want to destroy markets but at the same time you look at where you can increase 10-20 percent there and we did it.”
Titan’s state-of-the-art processing facility opened in 2015 and is the very picture of a space-age facility, handling everything from frozen peaches for home and foodservice to puree for use in other products. But without a peach crop, “That’s going to take a hit because it’s dependent on the volume we run through the fresh side. We’re actually going to have to buy peaches, believe it or not, either from the West Coast or up north to run the processing plant. Not what we want to do, but you’ve got to meet your contracts and stay in business.”
And that’s what you do when the unthinkable happens in farming. “You sit down, you take care of your folks and you look at how you can economically pull through the farm,” Carr said. “You cut expenditures anywhere you can, you tighten up your belt and maybe actually have a summer vacation with the family this time, we’ll see how that works. Then you tell the good Lord to just keep looking after us, all we’re trying to do is feed ourselves and the rest of the world. That’s all we want to do.”
At the end of the day, anybody who makes a living on what grows from the dirt has to be two things: A gambler and a prayer.
“You’re exactly right,” Carr agreed. “And an optimist. Don’t forget the optimist part. We’ll get all those peaches another day.”