A darkness has fallen across the cobbler belt. You can barely find a peach.
A winter that was a touch warm, followed by a series of hard freezes in March, has devastated the Georgia peach crop. Some hopeful state officials estimate that only 10 percent of the crop survived. But out in the field, the prospects appear even worse.
“If we made 2 percent of a crop, I would be surprised,” said Jeff Cook, a University of Georgia cooperative extension coordinator who helped put together an application for federal relief. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted it, declaring 18 Georgia counties natural-disaster areas and making an additional 38 counties eligible for federal loans. The cost to the state, including lost jobs and peach sales, Mr. Cook said, could reach $200 million.
In a state where eating a peach over the kitchen sink is a birthright, cobbler recipes are passed down through the generations and a baffling number of streets in Atlanta are named Peachtree, a summer without peaches is unfathomable.
There is little relief to be found in the orchards of neighboring South Carolina, which grows more than twice as many peaches as Georgia but has lost 75 percent or more of this year’s crop.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Lanier Pearson, whose family grows peaches on about 1,400 acres in Fort Valley, Ga. “We’ve never seen anything like this. Even my father-in-law, who is in his 70s and farmed his whole life, can’t remember a year this bad.”
The few peaches available at Atlanta-area farmers’ markets cost nearly double what they did last year. Organic peaches sell for almost $2 apiece. The local fruit are in such short supply that some Georgia grocery stores offer only peaches from California, which is like playing “Sweet Caroline” at Yankee Stadium.
Although California and South Carolina grow far more peaches, loyalty to the Georgia peach is strong. Stephen Satterfield, the chef at Miller Union in Atlanta, is not about to supplement his precious allotment of just two cases of a week with peaches from any other state.
Instead, he is building recipes around the deficit. Claudia V. Martínez, the restaurant’s pastry chef, slices peaches extra thin before assembling them with cornmeal cake and buttermilk ice cream. Tomatoes and cucumbers play supporting roles in a peach salad with lemon ricotta, herbs and crunchy granola. The bartender is pondering how to use peach pits for no-alcohol cocktails.
There is one bright spot in an otherwise tough year for Southern peaches. “I will say the little bit that are available are really shining,” Mr. Satterfield said.
Some chefs are simply giving up. Erika Council, who runs a breakfast spot in Atlanta called Bomb Biscuits, grew up eating and cooking with Southern peaches. Her grandmother is Mildred Council, better known as Mama Dip, who opened a popular restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., and went on to write two cookbooks.
Ms. Council is making jam with pineapples or cantaloupe instead of peaches, and customers will have to wait until next year for her peach reaper sauce, made with Georgia peaches and Carolina reaper peppers.
Peach prices, she said, “are so freaking high I would have to use canned or frozen, and I’m not going to do that.”
In a pinch, some Georgia peach purists will turn to South Carolina, which is second only to California in peach production. (For the record, in 2022 California grew 475,000 tons of peaches, dwarfing South Carolina’s 67,400 tons and Georgia’s 24,800.)
In the two Southern states, a similar terroir and long, hot summer days produce complex, sweet and perfumey fruit. Many of the varieties grown are the same, too. Sometimes even the most practiced peach-eating Southerner can’t tell the difference.
Despite a rivalry over whose taste better, the states stand united when it comes to fending off the peaches from up north or out west. “We have some friendly competition, but we want people to buy Southeastern peaches,” said Eva Moore, communications director for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
The South’s pain is also being felt in New England, where trees have endured weather fluctuations that included a blossom-killing February cold snap that took temperatures below zero.
“I don’t think there is a peach in New England,” said Joe Czajkowski, who has a few acres of fruit trees on his farm in Hadley, Mass.
Between there and the South, though, lies a success story: New Jersey, where this summer’s peach crop is terrific. The weather has been perfect, without excessive rain that can render peaches mushy, said Pegi Adam of the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council.
“But,” she said, “you shouldn’t say the South’s loss is Jersey’s gain.”
California is also enjoying a particularly good year. “We’ve lucked out,” said Chelsea Ketelsen, whose family runs HMC Farms, south of Fresno. “We’ve had a cooler summer than normal, so we have higher sugars than we normally do.”
Like other farms in California, HMC is doing its best to fill in the national gaps left by the poor Southern supply. And while Ms. Ketelsen has nothing but respect for partisans of the Georgia peach, she urges them to take a chance.
“If you have to settle for California,” she said, “this is the year to do it.”
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