Peaches are one of the most nutritious stone fruits you can eat. These fuzzy powerhouses are high in vitamins B3 and E and minerals such as copper and manganese. Throw in cancer-fighting carotenoids like lutein and lycopene and you’ve got yourself an indulgent but healthy 68 calorie snack.
At about 87,000 tons a year, South Carolina is one of the nation’s top peach producers, second only to California. Fresh peaches can be found anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours’ drive away. Whether you want to pick them yourself or buy them roadside, South Carolina is rich with these juicy gems.
With 10.2 pounds consumed per capita per year, fresh strawberries are another summer favorite. Packed with vitamin C, magnesium and phosphorous, they are a healthy treat. Though 90% of strawberries grown in the United States are rooted in Californian soil, South Carolina farmers offer locals ample chances to sample homegrown berries.
For many of these South Carolina farms, growing strawberries is a family affair and a fight to keep traditional family farms afloat.
A Century of Black’s Peaches
Black’s Peaches in York, South Carolina, is entering its centennial year. Arthur Black and his daughter, Beth Black White lead this family-owned and operated peach farm that offers a “pick your own” program as well as peaches ready and waiting for you at their roadside store.
Started by her great-grandfather in 1923, White takes pride in the fact that Black’s has evolved with the times to stay in business for the past 100 years.
“When the farm first started, we mainly produced wholesale-shipping peaches only,” White stated. “Economy changes, crop failures and different weather patterns caused us to shift gears and open our store and bakery. We now sell directly to customers who stop by the store or by the farm to pick their own.”
Making the trek to pick your produce has increased in popularity over the years for a few reasons.
“People are really getting interested in knowing where their food comes from. So it’s nice to be able to get homegrown produce from a local farmer, and people seem to enjoy picking for themselves. It’s a fun thing for families to do together, and we really saw an increase during COVID-19. Picking peaches was sort of a safe but fun outdoor activity,” said White.
There are benefits to picking peaches so close to home, too.
“When peaches are picked for commercial packing, they’re purposely picked really hard and unripe” White said. “When you get them from us, they’ve been on the tree a little longer. You pick them or buy them fresh from the stand. It’s just a better quality of fruit.”
When White says fresh she means fresh. At the stand, Black’s has a three-day rating system: “fresh,” which are picked that very same day; “day-old,” which have spent the night on the shelf; or “three-day-old” – discounted “ice cream peaches.”
“The ice cream peaches are very soft and sweet. They can be canned, used in baking or in ice cream,” White explained. “But you’ve got to use them pretty quickly.”
White’s favorite way to eat peaches, other than straight-from-the-tree in July at peak sweetness, is in her grandmother’s peach cobbler. The family is so enthusiastic about this dessert that they’ll generously share the recipe with anyone who stops in. … or a reporter who asks.
So whether you use these sweet fruits as a healthy pick-me-up or indulge by including them in baked goods, know that peaches are available to you from Black’s and other peach farms all over the state. There’s no need for a Carolinian to eat a California peach.
Grandmother Black’s No Roll Peach Cobbler
2 cups sliced peaches
1½ cup sugar
1 stick of butter
¾ cup plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
¾ cup milk
Mix sliced peaches with one cup of sugar. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Put butter in a 2-quart baking dish. Set in oven to melt butter. Make a batter of ½ cup of the sugar, flour, baking powder, salt and milk. Pour this mixture over the melted butter but do not stir. Put the sugared peaches on top of the batter but do not stir. Bake at 350 F for about an hour. The batter will rise to the top and become crisp and brown. Serve with ice cream or add more peaches.
Strawberry Hill USA
Another South Carolina farm helmed by a father-daughter team is Strawberry Hill USA in Chesnee. They, too, have had to adopt evolutionary strategies to keep delivering local produce into the hands of Carolinians.
Starting as a cotton farm in the early 1900s, members of this generational farming family have grown this business into a multifaceted agricultural venture with multiple locations.
Brandi Cooley-Easler and sister Bethani Cooley-McLellan, who work alongside their father, are the operations managers for the farm. Over the years, the Cooley family has diversified their offerings and operating style, and the women give their father full credit for the innovative measures taken to keep the farm productive.
“Peaches are our bread and butter,” Cooley-Easler said. “But we’re now known for our strawberries, too. Additionally, we grow row crops such as cucumbers, cantaloupes and squash.”
The first peaches were planted after grandfather Gene Cooley’s return from World War II on land given to him by his father under the condition that he dig the 2,000 holes required to plant the trees himself. He did and the rest is an ever-evolving history.
Cooley-Easler recalled a year when her father, after losing a peach crop to cold weather and supporting the farm that season by chopping and selling firewood, decided that it was time to make some changes. Just as his father had added peaches to the cotton, James Cooley decided to gamble on a new crop.
“He knew it was a risk,” Cooley-Easler said, “But as my dad likes to say: “You can’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.”
In 1995, Cooley invested in strawberries on 6 acres of the Cooley farm. Those 6 acres have grown into 120 acres, making it the largest strawberry farm in South Carolina. The crop has proven to be a good investment. The small plants are easier to protect when Mother Nature wreaks havoc on the farms.
“We can cover the strawberries if we need to,” Cooley-Easler said.
“Because we grow the berries with tunnel greenhouses as well, we can extend our strawberry season until almost Christmas,” she added.
“Diversifying is becoming more common among local farms,” Cooley-Easler explained. “Family farms have sort of dissipated, and we all have had to figure out ways to keep it going.”
That’s what the Cooley family has done. In addition to the 800 acres of peaches and 120 acres of strawberries, the family has added a store, a café, an ice cream shop and a roadside stand in nearby Gaffney.
The Cooley Farm also offers an educational series each spring. Scores of schoolchildren visit and enjoy tractor-drawn wagon tours as they learn about all it takes to run a working farm. They’re treated to homemade ice cream, then sent home with a pint of strawberries and a better understanding of where their food comes from.
Cooley-Easler and her family put everything they have into this venture and it shows.
“That’s what agriculture is all about,” she said. “It’s about working hard and doing it with your whole heart.”
By Amy Gesell