While visiting family in The Peach State, I went on a quest for the legendary Georgia Peach. We were in the heart of peach country, south of Atlanta in the center of the state. The locals were unanimous in recommending the family-owned Dickey Peach Farms for an old-time experience. In business since 1897, Dickey Farms is now run by the third and fourth generation of the Dickey family.
The long low Dickey peach shed runs along the street in the center of Musella, a small town about a half hour outside of Macon, facing a classic (now closed) stone country store with gas pumps out front. Along side is the derelict Musella Gin & Cotton Co., a sun-bleached three story utilitarian structure.
The peach shed, built with lumber from the Dickey farm, runs along the street, almost a football field long. It’s lIke an oversized front porch, cool and shady, with content visitors in wooden rockers – most with a cone of fresh peach ice cream – passing the time and staying out of the hot sun. Up a half flight of stairs from the street, the deep and shady gallery overlooks the hi-tech mechanical sorting line. Displays of fresh peaches in baskets and peach jams, preserves, salsas and relishes along with shirts, hats and peach cider run the length. There is a steady line to get a soft ice cream cone or cup made with the local fruit – peach or strawberry are the only flavors.
Behind the porch, almost a full story down is the peach processing line. Bins of peaches are emptied at the beginning of the line to be sorted. Blemished, bruised or overripe fruit is sent to the right. The top quality peaches move to the left to be washed, sorted by size, and boxed. The little bar code stickers you see at the store are stuck on and then peaches are packed by size. It just takes a minute for a peach to run the line.
Twenty varieties of peaches are grown by Dickey on their 850 acres, both Clingstone and Freestone. The harvest season runs from mid-May to early August. Peach varieties are named with considerable enthusiasm and often include the word Prince: Springprince, Rubyprince, Sureprince, Juneprince, Scarletprince, Fireprince, Julyprince, Sunprince, Flameprince, and Augustprince in addition to such modest names as Flavorrich, Majestic, and Contender.
The beauties on display were Harvester, large flavorful freestone examples. Alas, these peaches, glorious in their perfection, were picked for shipping, not ripe and ready for eating today. After all this peachiness, I had immediate cravings. Asking at the counter about ripe peaches that I could enjoy right away, I was told, with a nod to the left, to go downstairs to the packing line. Not sure I understood, I went down the wooden stairs anyway and asked the first guy I saw for ripe peaches. “Bag or box” he asked. Not really knowing, I replied, “bag”.
I was given a plastic shopping bag and sent down a few more stairs out the back of the shed to the loading dock. A bin at the end of a conveyor was steadily filling with peaches. These were the ones that moved to the right at the beginning of the line – bruised, blemished or too ripe to ship. Along with some other pickers, I pinched and prodded and bagged a dozen for a cobbler tonight. I showed my bag to the nice man by the packing line. “That’ll be a dollar,” he said. He explained that these peaches, good, but not pretty enough to be shipped with the Dickey label, would be sold to bulk processors for jam, salsa, juice and the like. These were Juneprince, a semi-freestone type a little smaller than the Harvesters on display upstairs. They made a flavorful cobbler for the twelve of us around the table.
Heading back to Norwalk, we stopped at a fruit stand off I-95 in South Carolina, looking for some peaches to bring home. I asked about ripeness. The ones on the top shelf would be good to eat in the car. The bottom shelf would last a few more days till we got home. “Don’t keep them in the hot trunk.”, we were cautioned. These SC peaches were sweet, juicy and (as advertised) ready to eat.
Silverman’s Farm offers July peach picking in their Easton orchard beginning in mid July. Call 203-261-3306 for picking dates. Look for New England and New York peaches at area Farmer’s Markets starting in July too. If they’re a little firm leave them out on the counter for a few days till they’re soft, but not mushy.
While we can find some local peaches in the Northeast, the majority come from somewhere else, often Georgia. When I travel to food growing regions, I like to check out the source. The growers enjoy having visitors and are eager to show of what they do. It’s a delicious part of our travels!