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Eubanks seeing high volume of quality South Carolina peaches moving though the pipeline

COLUMBIA, SC — Supermarket produce departments are moving an excellent volume of quality South Carolina peaches this summer, despite a cold snap that damaged early-season peaches in the state, according to Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.

“We lost the first six weeks of the growing season due to a late-spring freeze, but we’ve had high-volume and high-quality peaches in our peak production months of July and August,” Eubanks said Aug. 1. “We will see volume falling off late this month, with some shipments into September.”

A 28-year veteran of the department and an old hand at riding the weather roller coaster for produce crops, Eubanks added,  “We had several bad spells of weather. Another degree or two colder, our entire crop could have been lost.”

Handling is critical for peaches, and Eubanks stressed, “They are hand-picked in a ‘hard-ripe’ condition so they won’t be bruised in shipping. Then they are chilled for a day, which puts them to sleep so they don’t ripen further until placed on the shelf.”

The slumbering peaches arrive at supermarkets in prime condition.

South Carolina, despite being a small state (41st in size among the 50 states), ranks high in produce. It is the nation’s second-largest grower of peaches, behind California, and ahead of Georgia, which is known as “The Peach State.” It places in the top 10 for leafy greens, cantaloupe, peanuts, watermelons, tomatoes, mixed vegetables and sweet potatoes, Eubanks noted, and its Southeast location allows overnight shipments to reach most of the U.S. population.

Other advantages include 842 miles of interstate highways and 9,500 miles of state primary roads, the flow of the growing seasons and “growers learning and adapting to make the state’s produce better,” he said.

Over his nearly three decades at the department, Eubanks said, the number of produce stock keeping units has grown from about 60 to more than 500 — some SKUs reflecting new processing for existing products, others, such as broccoli, due to new varieties.

“Diversity has increased rapidly, and that’s a real plus,” he said. Retail marketing lessons learned over the years, Eubanks observed, include “having a program for marketing a fruit or vegetable throughout the time it is available — a season-long plan, not just one or two special promotions.”

Eubanks credits South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh E. Weathers with starting the Certified SC Grown program, which makes it easy for consumers to identify, locate and buy South Carolina produce. Weathers won a 2006 appropriation from the state legislature to begin the program, citing a consumer survey that found 90 percent of the state’s residents would buy South Carolina food products if they knew where to buy them.

On average, the state has invested $1 million a year in Certified SC Grown and signed up more than 1,300 participants, who invest an average of $7 for every $1 in state funding for the program.

Also in the program are 500 in-state retailers, including more than a dozen supermarket chains and several out-of-state retailers.

Eubanks said sales of South Carolina-grown fruits and vegetables climbed to more than $200 million from $131 million in 2006.

Meanwhile, Eubanks has a timely word for retailers: In South Carolina, everything’s peachy.