Roadside peach stands are a regular sight along the highways in the North Carolina sandhills. They lure travelers in with colorful signs advertising peaches, produce and ice cream. And the peaches you can get at these stands are different from what you’d find in a grocery store. We visited an orchard in Montgomery County, the heart of North Carolina’s peach country, to find out why.
Garrett Johnson is 81 years old. His family’s orchard in Candor, about 90 minutes east of Charlotte, has been growing peaches since he was a toddler. And he’s spent his life perfecting the art of cultivating the sweet fruit. On his farm, there are at least 50 different varieties.
“What we try to do," he says, "is to have three [varieties] going at one time; one that’s starting, one that’s at its peak, and one that’s just finishing.”
Most peach varieties only bear ripe fruit for a week or two. So a peach for sale in May is completely different from what you might buy in September.
With about 50 acres of peaches, Johnson runs one of the state’s largest operations. But, he says that’s tiny compared to some of the large growers in South Carolina.
One of his friends, he says, “he’s got five thousand acres. So what’s he going to do? He’s going to pick as quickly as he can.”
So the difference is that peaches from those mega-growers are picked before they’ve completely ripened and shipped out on refrigerated trucks.
Dexter Hill with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture says, “once that peach comes off the tree, it’s not going to get any sweeter. A North Carolina peach isn’t picked until it’s ripe.”
That’s not to say that you won’t find some of our neighbors to the south selling tree ripened peaches. It’s just that North Carolina’s entire peach industry is built around the roadside-stand model.
Several times a day, workers go through the orchard and load Johnson’s full-sized pick up with boxes of peaches. He then drives a few miles away to the retail side of the business.
Johnson Farms has had to move its roadside stand a few times as highway 220 has expanded and moved. But they’ve also expanded it….from an open air shelter, to a modern, air-conditioned general store and ice cream shop. Garrett Johnson’s wife, Barbara, is at the store almost every day.
“I'm here when the doors open, usually a little bit before 8:00, and sometimes we don't get out until about 7:00," she says.
Many of the customers have gotten to know her and her husband over the years, and they have grown very loyal. Spend a few minutes in the parking lot, and you’ll see license plates from all over….Virginia, South Carolina, Ohio, even Quebec.
Walter McCabe, from Ohio, says he’s stopped nearly every year for the past three decades on his summer trips to and from Myrtle Beach
"I'd like a peach cobbler with ice cream please," he tells a teenager taking orders at the ice cream window.
But if you aren’t driving through Candor, you can still get a taste of Johnson’s peaches…or those of hundreds of other North Carolina growers. Many of them send some of their crops to the farmers’ markets in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Asheville, and Lumberton. To get a taste of the homemade ice cream, though, you have to hit the road and stop at one of those peach stands.
"There And Back" airs Saturday mornings during Weekend Edition on WFAE.