KLINE, S.C. (AP) — It may be a little later than normal because of the cool, wet spring, but this year's peach season in South Carolina is looking pretty peachy.
A few late freezes caused some of the earliest peaches blooming in the state to die, but overall, farmers said the crop is good as peach farmers start picking and packing.
The state's most southern major peach operation, Chappell Farms in Barnwell County, opened its packing shed and started harvesting about a week ago, which is about two to three weeks behind the average season, co-owner Tommy Chappell said.
"We got a really, really late start this year," Chappell said.
Last year some peach farms in the state starting picking on May 5, said Amy London, a marketing specialist for peaches with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
Other farms in the northern part of South Carolina won't start picking peaches until after the first week in June. Arthur Black said he has been picking peaches at his York County farm on May 25 some years. But the late start isn't worrying him too much because the crop looks good.
"Now we just need some sunshine and just enough moisture," Black said.
The peaches were rolling through the lines at Chappell Farms this week, getting cleaned, inspected and packed into boxes with the farm's "Pat's Pride" logo. Forklifts put the boxes on to trucks waiting to head to New Jersey and Michigan, where co-owner Lynne Chappell said buyers were eagerly awaiting the first South Carolina peaches of the year.
The state is the second-biggest peach producer in the country, behind only California, selling about $75 million a year. Peaches also are one of the state's few boutique crops, with plenty of chefs and foodies claiming South Carolina grows the tastiest peaches in the world.
The delay means fresh peaches should make their way to stores and roadside stands all the way through Labor Day. Last year the fresh peach season in the state ended in late July, London said.
Cool nights during the late winter and spring are important because peaches need to spend a certain number of hours below 45 degrees to know when it is time to bloom. Once that threshold of chilling hours has been reached, peaches start growing during the next warm spell.
Last peach season was a bust at Chappell Farms because many of his trees didn't get the needed 450 chilling hours or more, and the blooms simply fell off the trees without producing fruit. But this season saw below normal temperatures for much of February, March and April in all of South Carolina. Lows in March were below average in the 30s and 40s, giving trees even more chilling hours than they need.
There was a fairly late freeze at the end of March, but it was light, with temperatures hitting just below 32. Chappell spent a couple of nervous nights with a helicopter hovering about 100 feet above his orchard, pushing the slightly warmer air above the ground down to keep his trees a degree or two warmer.
"It was close, but we avoided a big kill," Chappell said.
Late freezes are one of a peach farmer's biggest fears. Every one of them has a harrowing tale from 2007, when temperatures spend nine to 10 hours below freezing April 8, falling into the low 20s across most of South Carolina's peach growing region. The Easter Freeze, as it became known, wiped out 85 percent of the state's peach crop. Lynne Chappell said she worked at a hair salon that summer to make ends meet.
Peach farmers aren't entirely out of the woods. While freezes are over, hailstorms now become the biggest worry. The 14-hour or more days that started for Tommy Chappell back when the first blooms emerged in March will keep going until his workers are picking the last peaches in mid-July.
"Oh, I don't think I ever get a chance to stop worrying," Chappell said. "I don't breathe a sigh of relief until that last truck leaves."