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Team Players

Aug 02, 2018 12:42PM ● Published by Emily Stevenson

By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley

If their vibrant reds and oranges don’t catch your eye at the farmer’s market, just follow your nose to find a stand with fresh South Carolina peaches that are as juicy and delicious as they are messy.

While neighboring Georgia is known as the Peach State, South Carolina harvested nearly double its volume last year and is one of the nation’s top peach producers, second only to California, according to the S.C. Peach Council. The battle between the Peach State and the so-called Tastier Peach State even erupted into a good-natured, but pointed social media spat between the Twitter account for Georgia Grown and the S.C. Dept. of Agriculture, a fight that ended with the Agricultural Department giving the Georgia that most Southern of tell-offs: “Bless your heart.”

The 2018 season began in May and should remain in full swing through September. This year’s success is no accident: the Peach Team out of Clemson University’s College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Life Sciences has been hard at work all year to ensure a healthy harvest for growers.

The Peach Team is a small team of experts ranging from researchers to Clemson Cooperative Extension agents who work together to provide growers much-needed research on everything from tree growth to pathology and genetics. While the team is based out of Clemson University, the bulk of the South Carolina peach industry is situated between Edgefield and Lexington, north of I-20, but the team’s work has implications for peaches throughout the entire state and beyond.

Greg Reighard has been a research and extension horticulturist for 33 years at Clemson. His early research led him to co-developing Guardian rootstock, which has played a significant role in keeping the trees alive today, and he also played a pivotal role in building the new Musser Fruit Research Center, Clemson’s 240-acre fruit tree research farm, in the early 1990s.

“When I came on, the industry was going downhill because of tree death and spring freezes, but it’s come back strong,” he said.

According to the S.C. Peach Council, the South Carolina peach industry grosses approximately $50 million annually and employs more than a thousand people. “We still have issues, but we’re mainly successful because we work as a team,” Reighard said.

It may be shocking to learn that there are so many factors at play when it comes to growing the perfect peach—improving soil health and tree health, dealing with the warming climate and spring frost, and contending with diseases new and old—but Reighard says these issues are what the Peach Team is striving to overcome using genetics and cultural practices.

One of the team’s most valuable players is Ksenija Gasic, the Peach Team’s breeder and geneticist, who’s been working on mapping the genome of the peach. When she came on in 2008, it had been 25 years since the team had a breeder.

“Dr. Gasic has done a great job taking that molecular data and, with every single seedling that’s produced, she can tell before it’s even planted whether it’s got potential for large fruit or disease resistance,” Reighard said.

“My role is to develop cultivars that have genetic solutions to peach industry problems,” Gasic said. “I work together with the Peach Team members to discover individual cultivars that have desirable traits as identified by the industry and then we try to package those traits in a single cultivar.”

This is no small feat, either, considering how many types of peaches there are and how many different issues there are to troubleshoot in peach growing.

Guido Schnabel is the team’s plant pathologist and spends much of his time in the field diagnosing problems for growers.

“I get to go out into the field and diagnose problems,” Schnabel said. “Then I take it to the lab or an experimental station at Musser Farm to figure out how to help our growers deal with the issues they have.”

This season, two of the main issues have been skin discoloration, such as when the red gets too red and turns purple (known as bronzing), and insect problems. But despite some of the challenges, both Schnabel and Reighard agree that this year is going to be great for peaches.

“I think it’s actually the best year I’ve ever had in regard to flavor,” Schnabel said.

One of the concerns the team had this season had to do with early warming in the spring, which has been especially concerning with recent climate change.

Luckily, the Peach Team seems to agree that the Midlands is still a great place for peach-growing: appropriately warm and slightly elevated, and Reighard says this region has a four-day advantage in travel time to the eastern market compared to California.

“It took a long time, but we’ve made a lot of progress,” Reighard said, in large part thanks to the support of Clemson’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the S.C. Peach Council. “Clemson has become the go-to place for the peach, and it’s all due to the people on the Peach Team doing such great work.”

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