Darkness fell across the cobbler’s belt. You can hardly find a peach.
A winter that was a touch warm, followed by a series of hard freezes in March, devastated the Georgia peach crop. Some hopeful state officials value just that 10 percent of the crop survived. But on the field, the prospects seem even worse.
“If we did 2 percent of the harvest, I would be surprised,” said Jeff Cook, a University of Georgia cooperative extension coordinator who helped put together an application for federal emergency aid. Last week, the US Department of Agriculture gave 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 bewildering number of streets in Atlanta are called a Peach Tree, 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 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 has cultivated all his life, cannot remember a year this bad.”
The few peaches available at Atlanta farmers’ markets are costing nearly double what they did last year. Organic peaches sell for almost $2 a piece. The local fruit is in such short supply that some Georgia grocery stores only offer 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 its precious giving of only two cases a week with peaches from some other state.
Instead, he builds recipes around the deficit. Claudia V. Martinez, the restaurant’s pastry chef, slices peaches extra thin before topping 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 ponders how use peach pits for non-alcoholic cocktails.
There is one bright spot in an otherwise difficult year for Southern peaches. “I will say that the few that are available really shine,” Mr. Satterfield said.
Some chefs just give up. Heather Council, who runs a breakfast bar 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, NC, and went on to write two cookbooks.
Ms. Council makes marmalade with pineapples or cantaloupe instead of peaches, and customers will have to wait until next year for her peach harvest sauce, made with Georgia peaches and Carolina reaper peppers.
Peach prices, she said, “are so terribly high that I would have to use canned or frozen, and I won’t do that.”
In a pinch, some Georgia peach pickers 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, similar soil and long, hot summer days produce complex, sweet and fragrant fruit. Many of the cultivated varieties are also the same. Sometimes even the most practiced peach-eating Southerner can’t tell the difference.
In spite of rivalry over whose taste is 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 Southeast peaches,” said Eva Moore, communications director for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.
The pain of the South is also felt in New Englandwhere trees withstood weather fluctuations that included a flower-killing February cold that took temperatures below zero.
“I don’t think there’s a peach in New England,” said Joe Czajkowskiwho has a few acres of fruit trees on his farm in Hadley, Mass.
Between there and the South, however, lies a success story: New Jersey, where this summer’s peach harvest is terrific. The weather was perfect, without excessive rain, which can make peaches soft, said Pegi Adam of the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council.
“But,” she said, “you shouldn’t say that the South’s loss is Jersey’s gain.”
California is also enjoying a particularly good year. “We got lucky,” said Chelsea Ketelsen, whose family rules HMC Properties, south of Fresno. “We had a cooler summer than normal, so we have higher sugars than we usually have.”
Like other farms in California, HMC is doing its best to fill the national gaps left by the poor Southern supply. And while Mrs. Ketelsen has nothing but respect for supporters of the Georgia peach, she encourages them to take a chance.
“If you have to settle for California,” she said, “this is the year to do it.”