Freeze damage to peaches could cost state $27 million in revenue
JOHNSTON — A late March freeze that killed roughly 30 percent of this year's South Carolina peach crop will cause revenue losses of at least $27 million in the Palmetto State, according to South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers.
“That's a lot for rural South Carolina,” Weathers said during a visit to the headquarters of the J.W. Yonce & Sons peach-growing operation on Monday morning.
Weathers stopped by to view some of the Yonce family's orchards while South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was there to see the damage resulting from the freeze, which hit Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda counties the hardest and hurt the early-ripening peaches the most.
“It's going to be very difficult for us to stay in business this year, but we just grin and bear it,” said Yonce & Sons' Larry Yonce, who reported that the freeze wiped out “38 percent to 45 percent” of his family's 2014 peach crop.
“We have crop insurance, which is a federal program; and we do expect to get some money from that,” Yonce continued. “But the adjusters have to come out here first and do their work, and that will be a process that takes place throughout the season.”
South Carolina Department of Agriculture figures show that the revenue for the Palmetto's State's peach industry in 2013 was $49 million. The annual estimated economic impact of the industry is $88 million.
The area of the state known as “The Ridge,” where Yonce & Sons is based, is where the majority of the Palmetto State's peaches are grown and is home to more than 13,000 acres of peach orchards. Statewide, there are 17,000 acres of peach trees.
“The great news is that we will have peaches locally by the end of June and through July and August,” Yonce said. “And the best part about that is, it will be the best fruit of the season. It's the juiciest, and I'm sure that we are going to have a bountiful supply of it.”
Yonce gave Haley a tour that included an orchard of trees with the earliest-ripening peaches that were killed by the freeze and another orchard of trees with later-ripening peaches that had fruit. He also showed Haley Yonce & Sons' packing shed.
“It gives us a feeling of support,” said Yonce of Haley's visit.
He said Haley's visit was the first by a South Carolina governor to the area's peach industry since Carroll Campbell was in office from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.
During a press conference following her tour, Haley urged South Carolina residents to help Palmetto State peach farmers by purchasing locally grown fruit when it becomes available this summer, instead of buying peaches produced in California and elsewhere.
“There is no better way to support South Carolina than to make sure you are buying South Carolina products,” she said. “What we want you to do is go to your grocery stores and ask your grocers for South Carolina peaches. And if you don't see South Carolina peaches, ask your grocers why they aren't there and ask them what needs to be done to get them in there.”
Haley's message didn't include offers of financial aid for farmers with damaged peach crops.
“When we dealt with the 70 days of rain last year, Commissioner Weathers and I got together and we worked with the USDA to make sure we had some microloans and things like that for farmers,” she said. “But the main thing I appreciate about farmers – and I talked to the Yonce family about this – is that they don't want handouts. So while we can get them microloans, what they really are thinking about is the next crop or the next day they have to go to work. The way we can fix this (the destruction caused by the freeze) is to make sure that we are supporting our farmers every step of the way and buying their products.”
Yonce wasn't disappointed by what he heard from Haley.
“There is not much the state can do except encourage people to purchase South Carolina peaches,” he said. “We weren't looking for money from the state; the state doesn't have any money. Sometimes, it's the thought that counts just as much as the money, and we appreciate that Gov. Haley took the time to be here.”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013.