GEORGIA — Midsummer is the peak season for juicy peaches in Georgia. But recently, the Peach Cobbler Factory in Atlanta ran out of peaches and had to switch to…apple cobbler.
The peach state has lost more than 90% of this year’s crop after a heat wave in February followed by two late spring frosts. The triple strike wiped out peach varieties specially bred to survive varying weather conditions and highly inflated fruit prices. It also shifted much of the local market—quite reluctantly in some cases—to California peaches.
But besides the fact that this has affected employment, the state economy, long-term traditions and restaurant menus, peaches are the pride of Georgians. The peach is the state fruit. This is the name of dozens of state roads. It’s even on the back of the Georgia state block. So how embarrassing is that?
Imagine if New York had to import bagels from Los Angeles.
Worst harvest in decades
Some people just won’t do it. “Buying peaches in any other state is completely out of the question,” said Henrik Kumar, operations director of Butter & Cream’s Georgia ice cream stores. Their summer staples Peaches & Cream and Georgia Peach Sorbet debuted on July 1, he said, but eat fast. He predicted that they would run out before the end of the month.
CNN spoke to farmers and farming groups who said they couldn’t remember a more devastated peach crop. “I talked to [an older farmer] and he said 1955 was the last time he saw it that bad,” said farmer and peach grower Sean Lennon of Fitzgerald Farms in Woodbury, Georgia. “It’s a financial loss for the state, but it’s much more than that.”
The shortage forced Lennon to lay off many of his workers, including the migrant workers he brings in every year under the H2-A visa program. He said he had to send workers who come to the US to support their families back to Mexico ahead of schedule due to a lack of work.
Peach prices are rising
Yes, peach prices in Georgia have jumped, he said, to about $40 for a bulk box from the usual $17-20. Some buyers say the boxes have gone up to $60 a box in bulk. But most Georgia farmers don’t have many fruits to sell.
Restaurateurs staying true to the Georgia staple are facing similar supply issues. Filipino restaurant Kamayan has decided to fight the shortage by offering its peach lumpia, fruit spring rolls, only on weekends, not daily.
Owner Mira Orino said that while her lumpias are popular, she will remove them from the menu before switching to canned or out-of-state peaches.
But given local prices, they don’t make money from what they sell, she said. “We profit from other items. [The peach lumpias] is a labor of love,” Orino said.
Peach cult “Seinfeld”
It’s a short window of peak flavor for peaches, a moment made legendary by the 1995 episode “Seinfeld,” in which the character Kramer frantically searched for Mackinac’s Peaches, which, according to the episode, are only available two weeks out of the year.
(The Internet is sharply divided as to whether the sitcom’s peaches were brought from the Michigan city of the same name, from its nearest neighbor Wisconsin, from Canada, or are simply mythical.)
The shortage of peaches this year forced many restaurants that could not do without peaches to switch to other places. Aunt Evelyn’s Peach Shoemaker, a chain of four bakeries in Georgia, stocked California peaches, said Aunt Evelyn’s son and owner David Bruce. California is the top US peach producer, followed by South Carolina, then Georgia, which produces about 130 million peaches annually.
Georgia growers, restaurateurs and farming groups said they don’t know how the climate will affect next year’s harvest, but hope it’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
Meanwhile, Georgia peaches are marketed as Seinfeld McIncow, a delicacy Kramer called “a natural wonder like the northern lights.”