The following story appears in the 2014 Auburn-South Carolina edition of Tailgate Times, an app-based publication of the Auburn University Food Systems Institute. Tailgate Times is published prior to each Auburn home football game. Download the app here and read more stories like this one every time the Auburn Tigers play at home.
by KAREN HUNLEY
If you are from Alabama, the term “Chilton County peaches” may very well make your mouth water and cause you to long for one of these decadent summer treats. As the largest peach-producing county in the state of Alabama, with about 3,500 acres of peach trees, Chilton County is known to many as the mecca of peaches in the Heart of Dixie.
Chilton County is also home to the famous Peach Park, which sells peaches, other fresh produce, and a variety of peach products—don’t leave without indulging in the peach ice cream—as well as the Chilton Research and Extension Center.
The center, established in 1948, conducts research to support the county’s plethora of peach growers as well as research on almost all the other fruits and many of the vegetables grown in Alabama, says Jim Pitts, director of CREC and a former Auburn University football player. He played defensive end for the Tigers, graduating in 1980.
The Chilton County center is one of 12 experiment stations in the state dedicated to field research on commodities important to the Alabama economy, and the findings are often shared in professional journals and through the media.
Chilton County has long boasted a reputation for particularly succulent peaches, but truthfully, there isn’t much difference between these and peaches from other states, Pitts says.
“We like to make a big deal out of Chilton County peaches, which have really come to be understood as a brand, but we grow the same varieties of peaches as the rest of the Southern states, buy from the same nurseries, and oftentimes compete for the same customers,” he explains.
That doesn’t mean peaches grown in Chilton County aren’t special, however. Pitts says their trademark taste and texture can be attributed to location and size of the orchards compared to those in other states. Mature, ripe peaches, like any fruit, are going to be sweeter and softer than immature peaches. And Chilton County peaches are picked at the peak and never have to travel far to reach a fruit stand, so they get into consumers’ hands before over-ripening.
“The further the fruit needs to be hauled, the earlierthey need to be picked, and oftentimes these fruit are too green for great flavor and sweetness,” Pitts explains.
Also, peach growers in other states may have orchards spanning more than 500 acres, while Alabama peach orchards average around 30 to 50 acres. “These smaller operations allow more attention to detail, usually meaning an overall better selection of peaches,” Pitts says.
You might also be surprised to learn just how many varieties of peaches exist. A typical grower in Chilton County, for example, grows about 35 different varieties of peaches to ensure a hearty supply of fruit the whole season. Peaches are harvested in Alabama from April to September, with mid-June through early August being the peak, Pitts says.
Those harvested from early April to late May are all varieties of cling peaches, in which the sweet flesh clings to the pit. During the rest of the season, until early September, you get primarily freestone peaches (the pit, or stone, is free of the flesh).
Most peaches have yellow flesh, with skin ranging from yellowish orange to a rich ruby red. White-fleshed peaches, however, are the most aromatic and often the softest, Pitt says, and you can find these among both cling and freestone types.
“Taste is subjective, but the aroma of white peaches could enhance their popularity,” Pitts adds.“However, the majority of people prefer the yellow flesh, which is the reason you might not see many white peaches in the store.”
Some white-fleshed peaches are “subacid,” or less acidic than your typical tangy Southern peaches, and they are especially popular in Asian countries such as China. Check out this video from Clemson University for more information on white, subacid peaches.
For a little taste of summer any time of the year, all types of peaches can be enjoyed year-round. “I like to eat frozen peaches right out of the freezer after they have thawed just a bit,” Pitts says, adding that canned peaches are also a good option for holiday pies and cobblers.
When eating fresh peaches from Chilton County or anyplace else, Pitts recommends simply washing and peeling the fruit to guard against potentially harmful toxins. He says it is difficult to grow truly “organic” peaches in the South because of the hot, humid weather that creates a breeding ground for fungus and bacteria if some treatments are not used.
“I believe our produce, grown with integrated pest management, is the safest and most economical way to grow and market fruit,” Pitts says.
Integrated pest management is an ecosystem-based strategy focusing on long-term prevention of pests and damage from pests through a combination of techniques, including biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, use of resistant varieties, and use of pesticides only after monitoring indicates they are needed and only targeting a specific organism.
“There are those who claim to produce organic peaches—most are on the West Coast where growing conditions are dryer—but most of that talk is to create a marketing niche,” Pitts says.
For more information, contact Jacque Kochak with the Auburn University Food Systems Institute at 334-844-7465.