Blueberry outstrips peach as Georgia's top fruit crop (with video)

Blueberry outstrips peach as Georgia's top fruit crop (with video)

June 18th, 2012 by Tim Omarzu in News

Lynda Shenefield picks fresh blueberries from a bush at The Blueberry Farm in LaFayette, Ga., on Thursday.

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

POLL: Should Georgia's nickname be changed to the bluberry state?"

"Ain't nothing sweeter than us Georgia peaches," sings Lauren Alaina, a Rossville country music star who on Saturday night gave the closing performance at Riverbend 2012.

Alaina may be right. Yet more and more Georgia farmers are finding their thrill on blueberry hill.

Blueberries have outstripped peaches as Georgia's top fruit crop. The berries have an annual value of about $134 million -- almost three times that of the peach harvest's $47 million take, according to the 2010 Georgia Farm Gate Value Report.

Like an Atlanta-area driver using a "Peach Pass" on the interstate's express lane, it hasn't taken long for the blueberry to blast past Georgia's most famous fruit.

Only a decade ago, Georgia had 5,000 acres planted with blueberry bushes, and the crop was worth about $22 million, according to the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

But blueberries' reputation as an antioxidant-rich "superfood" helped fuel demand, and Georgia growers now devote 20,000 acres to blueberry bushes, according to university blueberry expert Scott NeSmith.

With the possible exception of Idaho's "famous potatoes," no state is so paired with a particular type of produce as Georgia and the peach. It's on the state's quarter and its license plate, for starters. The new plate, designed by Linda Sosebee of Forsyth, Ga., features peaches in the foreground against a backdrop of green hills.

The list goes on. Georgia's newest county, Peach County, was established in 1924. An 800-pound fiberglass and foam peach drops on New Year's Eve at Underground Atlanta before a cheering crowd of almost 200,000 -- people, not peaches.

Yet with that kind of grip on the state's soul, Georgia peach promoters don't seem too worried about blueberries' advantage in mere numbers.

"Georgia's the Peach State and hopefully always will be," said Robert Dickey III, past president of the Georgia Peach Council and a third-generation peach farmer.

Instead of feeling threatened that blueberry growers have thrown down the gauntlet, Dickey said there's room at the table for all Georgia-grown farm products.

"I love blueberries," he said.

Peach and blueberry cobbler is one of the products sold at Dickey Farms, about 30 miles west of Macon, which his family has owned since 1897.

Peaches and blueberries "really complement each other," Dickey said.

Lynda Shenefield, of Ooltewah, was picking blueberries Thursday afternoon at The Blueberry Farm, a four-acre you-pick operation at 1363 Highway 151 in Walker County that has about 1,200 blueberry bushes. Shenefield said she'll take blueberries any day over peaches.

"Not everyone in my family would agree with that," said Schenefield, who added that she makes blueberry pie and puts blueberries on ice cream.

Joe and Simone Kilpatrick bought The Blueberry Farm in 1997 from a couple who founded it in the 1970s. About 1,000 customers come annually, Joe Kilpatrick said.

"People come here just for meditation -- the peace," he said, explaining that families from Atlanta's suburbs will spend an entire day at the bucolic site. He knows that because there's a guest book in which visitors can record their thoughts.

Georgia's identity as the Peach State has come away unscathed from previous threats, including the fact that South Carolina has been producing more peaches since the 1950s.

"We always like to say they may produce more, but we produce better," said Brandon Ashley, commodities specialist for the Georgia Farm Bureau.

Ashley said one of the network TV morning news shows had a peach taste-off between the two states and "the people all agreed that the Georgia peaches were the best."

California produces six times as many peaches as South Carolina and Georgia combined. But Ashley said Southerners are united in saying theirs is a better product.

"They all agree that a Southern peach is better than a California peach," he said. "It's fresher; it's sweeter than if it's shipped across the country."

Earl Roden, 78, has been selling fruits and vegetables since he was 5.

"I used to peddle vegetables in Chattanooga with a horse and buggy," Roden recalled Thursday while tending his produce stand on Rossville Boulevard.

A sign out front advertised the recent delivery of tree-ripened peaches. Just as vine-ripened tomatoes taste best, Roden said, tree-ripening is the key to a good-tasting peach.

"If you get peaches pulled off the tree half-ripe, they will never taste good," he said.

Blueberries edging out Georgia peaches "doesn't bother me," Roden said. "I sell blueberries [from] Sand Mountain."