Peaches and cream.
You're a peach.
When peaches enter the language, they do it with a summery smile,
which is as it should be. Whether we're biting into fresh fruit or
tucking into peach pie, peaches provide one of the great joys of the
season. A peachless summer would be like a blossomless spring, and who
in Southern Maryland would want that?
We know peaches belong to our summer but we may not realize just how
much they belong to our land. Ask most people where peaches come from,
and Georgia comes to mind. The Peach State has the name but Maryland is
very much in the game. Indeed, the Free State could be called the
Freestone State because that's the kind of peaches it produces - eight
million pounds of them in 2003 according to U.S. Department of
Agriculture statistics. (Freestone peaches are the ones we usually eat.
Clingstone peaches, used for canning, are grown largely in California,
the Number One peach producer, way ahead of Georgia.)
A good portion of Maryland's eight million pounds is produced in
Southern Maryland by commercial growers large and small. Their spreads
range from the 6,000 trees maintained by Allen and Jody Swann (Swann
Farms) in Calvert County to the 750 growing on Dan and Sue Gragan's land
(D&S Farms) in St. Mary's County to the 400 on George Rabbitt's property
(Benedict Farm) in Charles County.
Swann's farm has been in his family since about 1850, which is about the
time peaches were first grown in Maryland. Despite its large scale, the
farm's staff basically consists of Allen Swann and his nephew Jody, with
hired help added during the harvest. Swann's peaches are all sold at
wholesale, to independent markets such as Roland's in Chesapeake Beach
and Food-Rite in Deale. Some also go to Roadside vendors and, at the
other end of the scale, to Giant supermarkets.
In contrast, Rabbitt and the Gragans sell directly to the public. You
can buy Rabbitt's peaches only at the roadside stand by his home on
Route 231 in Benedict. The Gragans, whose farm is far from a main road,
visit farmers' markets throughout the greater Washington area.
All three growers agree that producing peaches is hard work and requires
Pruning the trees begins around the first of the year and continues
until March or April, when the blossoms spring forth. The trees require
spraying against bugs and disease, which means investment in chemicals.
"There's really no such thing as organic peaches," says Swann, "though
you can use an organic feeding program. But there's no organic way to
protect against ground rot and all the diseases that peaches get."
Once peaches begin to appear, they have to be thinned. "You may have
1,000 peaches on a tree. If you let them go you'll have 1,000 golf
balls," says Dan Gragan. Harvest time stretches from about late spring
to early fall, as different varieties of peaches mature at different
times. Aside from the maturity dates, the principal difference between
one variety and another is whether the flesh is white or yellow.
Otherwise, "a peach is pretty much a peach," says Rabbitt. "They'll all
taste sweet if you leave them on the tree long enough to ripen."
For all its hardships, peach growing in Southern Maryland forms a way of
life attractive enough to draw people from urban pursuits. Before the
Gragans bought a former tobacco farm 10 years ago, Sue was a lobbyist
for the construction industry and Dan was an electrical engineer. George
Rabbitt sold tires and batteries for Sears before he started to grow
peaches in the 1980s. Allen Swann grew up on the farm but left to work
in Washington for a while before returning in 1974.
Swann plans to leave the farm to his children even though fancy new
homes are starting to crowd the rural landscape near his spread on the
Patuxent River. Much of his land is legally protected against
development and "we have no intention to sell" the rest, he says. "If
you do, the money's gone in one generation, and you know that land is
the only thing they're not making any more of."
Fortunately, that's not true of peaches. Swann and other Southern
Maryland farmers are making plenty more of these joys of summer.