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Corey Johnson, with the Peach Truck, hands out boxes of peaches to customers at East Ridge Hardware on Friday

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Just Peachy: Peach Truck preaches the gospel of Georgia peaches

How to get them

The Peach Truck rolls through Hamilton and Bradley Counties again on July 29, stopping first at Tractor Supply Co. (2750 Keith St. NW, Cleveland) from 8-9:30 a.m. then on to Ooltewah Nursery and Supply Co. (5829 Main St.) from 10:30 a.m. to noon; it moves to East Ridge Hardware (5337 Ringgold Road) from 1-2:30 p.m. then finishes at Hixson’s Holcomb Garden Center (5513 Highway 153) from 3-4 p.m. For more information, got to thepeachtruck.com.

The East Ridge Hardware parking lot overflows with customers. The day is scalding hot yet clammy and close; it feels like being trapped inside the belly of a beached whale.

A semi-trailer full of Georgia peaches pulls into the lot. The Peach Truck has arrived. Compassionate East Ridge Hardware store owner Jake Yoder invites the Peach Truck staff and their customers inside his air-conditioned store.

The line snakes up and down eight aisles, past garden hoses and grills, coolers and bug zappers, drill bits, power tools and garage doors, all the way to the back of the store where there's a tower of boxes. Each is packed with 25 pounds of Georgia peaches picked just two days earlier on Pearson Farms in Fort Valley, Ga., a 45-minute drive from Macon. Elderly people with walkers and canes, women with toddlers or babies in strollers and even people who carpooled in vans wait patiently to pay $39 each for a crate of dreamy peaches.

"This is the first time we've hosted the Peach Truck, and I've already decided we'll do it again," Yoder says, cheerfully welcoming a new crowd of through the door.

Pearson Farms is preaching the power of Georgia peaches in an era when South Carolina has been shipping more peaches to customers across the nation than Georgia, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2014, South Carolina harvested 65,700 tons and Georgia harvested just 35,500 tons, according to import-export research firm Statista. California blew both states away with a 620,000-ton harvest, and one of its big customers is China, a country where peaches are popular as gifts.

In 2012, Pearson Farms deployed its first Peach Truck, a 1964 Jeep Gladiator that rolled through the South, selling the fuzzy, amber fruit.

"That little Gladiator sold 10 tons of peaches in five weeks, so it was clear a bigger truck was needed so we use the semi," explains Peach Truck staffer Stephen Murray.

Three Peach Trucks travel different routes through Tennessee, Alabama, the Carolinas, Ohio and Indiana, making stops that last about 90 minutes each along the way. The schedule is posted online at www.thepeachtruck.com.

"There are shuttles that go between the three Peach Trucks on the road now and the farm so we can keep stocked with freshly picked peaches," Murray says. "The peaches you see in grocery stores have been off the tree for an average of 45 days. We get peaches to customers that were on the trees just two days earlier."

At East Ridge Hardware, he and his brother, Matthew, alongside co-workers Joseph Kudratt and Corey Johnson, tirelessly and cheerfully heft the fruit crates onto dollies and shopping carts then load them into customers' vehicles non-stop for the entire 90-minute stop. Their co-worker Tiffany Trerise helps collect money and stack the load when one customer buys multiple crates.

"I found out about the Peach Truck on Facebook," says Suzanne Allen, who looks like anyone's idea of a favorite granny. "South Carolina peaches are nice, but they're not as sweet and juicy as Georgia peaches. It's getting hard to find Georgia peaches in the grocery stores 'round here even if we're just 10 minutes from the Georgia state line."

In Cleveland and Ooltewah, customers lin up in parking lots under the broiling sun while the Peach Truck crew labor in the heat. And the East Ridge customers obviously are willing to wait in line to get their fresh Georgia peach fix.

At East Ridge Hardware, Jennifer Motter has two extremely well-behaved elementary school-aged children in tow and a toddler on her hip as she waits in line.

"And I have two more at home," she says. "Believe me, they can eat through 25 pounds of Georgia peaches in one day. They're that good."

The University of Georgia's horticulturists have said over the years that Georgia peaches have a sweeter, deeper flavor thanks to the steamy days, hot nights and red clay soil the state's orchards enjoy. South Carolina nights cool down a bit too much for peaches to achieve the most intense flavor.

"Really, when I tasted my first Georgia peach, I wondered: What were those things I bought in grocery stores all these years that I thought were peaches?" Kudratt says.

But can customers really distinguish between a Georgia peach and one from California or South Carolina?

"Absolutely," replies Joanne Loftan, "Georgia peaches are sweeter, juicier, more intense in flavor."

She plans to freeze a portion of the two crates she bought to make into smoothies and baked goods.

Some customers also like these peaches because they are freestone, meaning the pit is loose and easy to pop out. Andrew Perry shrugs in response.

"I don't know; I'm standing in line because my wife told me to come here and buy a crate," Perry says with a smile.

As the last customer rolls off a cart loaded with a crate, the young Peach Truck crew pause barely long enough to catch their breath before they must head to Hixson and pitch the peaches to a new crowd.

"We always have a few sore muscles at the end of the day but the swimming pool at the Hampton Inn makes that go away," Matthew Murray says.

Contact Lynda Edwards at 423-757-6391 or ledwards@timesfreepress.com.

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