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South Carolina peach operation high tech, but family oriented

South Carolina ranks second only to California in peach production and McCleod Farms in McBee, S.C., combines high technology and four generations of know how and family involvement to be among the biggest and best peach operations in the state.

Owned and operated by Kemp and Gay McCleod, their No. 1 product, Mac’s Pride peaches, are shipped all over the U.S.

McCleod farms doesn’t stop at peaches, they have a large corn, wheat, soybean and rye row crop operation and a thriving peach-centered store that is rapidly becoming a tourist attraction for people headed to South Carolina’s beaches.

In addition to their peach and row crop operation, the McCleods grow strawberries, red potatoes, cabbage, sweet corn, squash, onions, bell pepper, okra, tomatoes, peas, pumpkins, turnips, egg plants and other produce that is sold in their roadside market.

At the center of the operation are peaches — lots of peaches. Kemp McCleod is a fourth generation peach farmer, with a lifelong history of peach production and a keen eye for marketing. Located on a major route from heavily populated areas in North Carolina to South Carolina’s beaches, McCleod Farms is a popular stop for beach goers.

During peak peach season, McCleod’s pack house employs 125 workers and often runs six days a week and 10-12 hours a day. They routinely pack out 1,000 to 1,400 pounds of peaches per day and have packed over 2,000 pounds a day.

While labor is an overwhelming problem for many fruit and vegetable growers, for the McCleods migrant workers are a yearly part of the family. They have high quality on-farm residences for male and female workers, even for families. All their labor, Gay McCleod stresses, is legal. Many are from the same state in Mexico and all come back year after year to pick and process the peach crop.

All the peaches are packed and coded with barcodes. The high tech operation allows for tracking peaches from the tree to the store. Should problems arise with any of their peaches that are shipped all over the country, they can track the problem back to a block of peach trees.

With over100,000 peach trees on 700 acres, production problems are routine. Using fiber jet emitters on a custom made irrigation system, the McCleods can pick peaches in the third year after planting. These trees stay in production 12-15 years.

Growing peaches in the sand hills of South Carolina is both a blessing and a curse. On the bad side, water goes straight down through the sandy soil to underground aquifers. On the good side, peaches don’t like wet feet.

Though they can pump water on one peach farm at 1,800 feet per second and 1,500 feet per second on the other farm, keeping up with 110-112 degree heat indexes is tough, according to Dale Geddings, who manages irrigation and often oversees the packing house.

When peaches begin getting their color; they get water 2-3 times per week. In 2006, at times running 24 hours a day was not enough to keep up the intense heat and drought.

Though summer is the real action time for peaches, the season actually begins with pruning in late December. When peaches begin to bloom, some varieties are sprayed with Tergitol, a naturally occurring compound that helps with thinning. Most thinning is done by hand.

Slow release 4-0-8 or 7-0-7 fertilizer is applied to trees early in the year, followed by another application applied at bloom, and if needed, a third application is applied through the irrigation system.

During the bloom season, peaches are most vulnerable to cold weather. To combat freeze damage the McCleods use a system of windmills, with 30-foot propellers powered by 454 cubic inch Chevrolet engines that have been converted to propane. Bales of hay are burned on the periphery of peach orchards and the huge windmills circulate warm air throughout the orchard.

Using the windmills has helped them lose only one peach crop in the last 12 years. The magic numbers for freeze at McCleod Farms is 17 degrees F for a short period and 24 degrees F for 12 hours or more. The warm air from the windmills and burning hay prevents cold air and frost from settling on the bloom.

After escaping late spring freezes, a major concern is hail. To combat hail, the McCleods have installed a ‘hail gun’. The hail gun saturates the air above the orchards with high decibel sound waves that break up hail storms. During high risk times, they closely monitor Doppler radar via a computer link. When conditions are right, they zap the air with ear-splitting sounds.

“The hail gun has saved us several times,” says Gay McCleod. She notes that the gun can be moved from orchard to orchard, but is too bulky to do so more than one time a year. So, the cannon is strategically placed in the most vulnerable orchards. The same technology is also used to protect large greenhouses, car lots and assorted other high dollar crops and enterprises.

Commercial peach production in South Carolina dates from the 1860s, but today peaches are grown in three main areas of the state — the "Ridge", the "Coastal Plain" and the "Piedmont". The Ridge is in the south central area, the Coastal Plain runs along the eastern shore, and the Piedmont runs along the northwest region of the state.

There are over 200 million pounds of peaches harvested in South Carolina in a normal year. There are approximately 18,000 acres of peaches in the state. South Carolina ranks No. 2 in fresh peach production and interstate shipments. Georgia ranks No. 3 nationally in fresh production. (At one time, one county in South Carolina could produce more commercially-grown fresh peaches than the entire state of Georgia.)

South Carolina only has about 10 peach packing sheds left in the state. Each packing shed requires about 100 to 150 people to pack and ship peaches. That's at least 1,000 people in the community directly dependent on packing peaches. Add to that, those businesses which rely on service and supply, and the numbers of jobs and revenue increases significantly. By the end of the late 1930s, there were over 250 commercial peach packing plants in the Piedmont alone.

Truly a family affair, all the McCleod children work in the orchards, packing house or store. In the summer of 2006, daughter Amanda manages the quality control program and Rachel oversees packing of gift packs.


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