Several blueberries grow together at the Westbrook Farm at the University of Georgia Griffin Campus in 2012. University of Georgia Professor of Horticulture Scott NeSmith grows many varieties and has a 5-acre blueberry plot. Blueberries have now surpassed peaches as Georgia's top fruit crop.
The peach is Georgia's official fruit. It graces license plates and quarters. A whole county is named for it. An 800-pound “peach” welcomes the New Year when it touches down in Atlanta near Peachtree Street.
So Georgia’s peach bonafides are beyond reproach.
Or are they?
Turns out that while the peach slept, commercially speaking, the blueberry quietly claimed the top spot among Georgia fruits. Since 2008 the diminutive berry has brought home more money than its fuzzy cousin -- $133 million in 2010, vs. $47 million for peaches, according to University of Georgia data.
Blueberry sales are five times what they were in 2003, while peach sales are basically flat.
“It’s blueberry’s moment in the sun,” said Scott NeSmith, the University of Georgia’s blueberry specialist who wears a “Blueberry Team” shirt and samples up to a pint of the delectable fruit daily. “The peach market has matured.”
Georgia…the Blueberry State? Time to can “The Peach State” motto and decades of Georgia lore and brand awareness? Never, peach proponents vow.
“There’s nothing as sweet as a Georgia peach, not even a little old blueberry,” said Perry Swanson, president of the Peach County Chamber of Commerce. “Besides, would people say, ‘That girl’s as pretty as a Georgia blueberry?’”
No fruit compares with Georgia's top agricultural product: chicken. The state’s broiler industry notched $4.6 billion in sales in 2010, followed by cotton, eggs, timber and peanuts, according to UGA’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.
Blueberriesare No. 16; peaches, No. 29. But fruits, blueberries in particular, continue their surge in sales and stature as Georgia’s early-season harvests meet growing demand for healthy foods.
“Georgia law says the peach is what we’re known for, but it’s good to have some diversity when it comes to the agricultural economy,” said Gary Black, the state’s agriculture commissioner, well-stocked with 20 pounds of blueberries in his freezer. “They are providing a good income and land utilization for a lot of our growers.”
Blueberries used to be an agricultural afterthought, growing wild in the forests and swamps of southeast Georgia. Michigan, Oregon, New Jersey and other northern climes pretty much controlled the market.
UGA researchers in Tifton first toyed with cultivated blueberry plants in 1925. A half-century later, some Southeast Georgia farmers got serious. Joe Cornelius, a farmer in Manor near the Okefenokee Swamp, traded an old boat and some bulldozer work for his first blueberry plants.
Now, he marvels, “You get to riding around in places that used to be all woods and, all of a sudden, you got a 50-acre blueberry patch there.” Cornelius farms 180 acres of the fruit that ends up mostly in Wal-Marts and Costcos.
A decade ago, Georgia tallied 8,000 acres of blueberries. Today, it has more than 19,000. Peach acres dropped from 16,000 to 12,000 during that period.
An early and long growing season – late April through July – has turned Georgia into the No. 3 blueberry-producing state after Michigan and Oregon.
But the industry wouldn’t have exploded without a series of studies touting the health benefits of the bite-sized fruit. Researchers say blueberries are rich in antioxidants and can improve memory in the elderly, reduce blood pressure, combat cardiovascular disease and while providing vitamins C and K and fiber.
Even fast-food giant McDonald’s established a "supplier facility" in Manor last year to directly source ready-to-eat blueberries for its oatmeal, a spokeswoman said.
“When somebody like McDonald’s takes interest,” said NeSmith, the UGA horticulturist, “you know you’ve arrived.”
NeSmith may spend hours each day ambling about the university’s Westbrook Research Farm in Griffin, south of Atlanta. He’s a plant breeder, the scientist responsible for creating new varieties that propel Georgia’s blueberry industry.
“People are eating blueberries because they’re good for them,” said NeSmith, popping one after another into his mouth. “My challenge is to get them to keep eating them because they like them.”
Peach trees once covered acreage now used for blueberry research at the UGA farm, an irony not lost on NeSmith or other agriculture officials.
Peaches were introduced along Georgia’s barrier islands in the 1500s by Franciscan monks. Production topped out in 1928 at nearly 8 million bushels. The “Peach State” moniker had firmly stuck (though the General Assembly wouldn't officially recognize the peach until 1995).
It little mattered that South Carolina surpassed Georgia as the nation’s top peach-producing state years ago. Nor that current harvests average about 2.6 million bushels annually, most plucked from trees infour middle Georgia counties: Crawford, Taylor, Macon and, of course, Peach.
Peach industry consolidation means fewer farmers and joint marketing deals. California, where production has zoomed, is the top peach-growing state by a wide margin.
Georgia growers complain of high labor costsand fickle weather. Pecans, grown in the same Georgia regions, are the hot crop these days, particularly with China’s insatiable demand driving up prices.
“It’s hard growing peaches; there are other things people think they can make better money on,” said Robert Dickey III, a fourth-generation peach farmer in Musella. “But Georgia is still an ideal spot to grow peaches (and) we will always be The Peach State.”
Ken Bernhardt, a marketing professor at Georgia State University, agrees that the peach is in no danger of losing its prized perch in Georgia history and lore.
"If we're No. 1 in peoples' minds, that's what counts. And that's the brand we should keep," he said. "Perception is reality."
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