The last few years have brought a renaissance in local and regional farm support. Consumer demand for produce grown close to home has increased exponentially, and that demand is serviced by farmers' markets and retailers who are able to successfully blend local and long haul purchasing. You might think that since I run an office that specializes in buying and shipping product from around the world that I would feel my livelihood is threatened by this local farm resurgence, but nothing could be further from the truth. In most cases the carbon footprint for a local purchase is smaller, the return to the grower is, on average, greater and, in the case where the product is more flavorful, purchasing and selling local produce can increase overall consumption (which benefits long haul as well). In essence, I believe there is room and need for both. Peaches are a great example of this and pride in local production is furious.
In the places in the U.S. where I have lived or visited during local peach season, local growers always share a reason why their local peach is the absolute best. It might be the soil, the number of chill hours in the winter, the pattern of spring rainfall, heat units in the summer, the variety and its compatibility with the region, or just the way the fruit is picked and handled in post harvest. I generally agree with whoever is telling me about the local virtues, since it gives me more time to wolf down the fruit they have just picked off the tree for me.
Heirloom Variety- California
Generally, peaches shipped a long distance are also very good and, most of the time, are the only peach available - particularly if you shop for organic fruit because there are a wide range of diseases and pests that can take out an organic peach tree in most parts of the U.S. At Whole Foods Market, we usually start the season with conventional fruit from California and transition that fruit to local as soon as it becomes available, which ranges from the early summer for the southern states to progressively later for fruit grown further north. Organic fruit continues to be sourced in California, transitioning to Washington State further into the summer. Large scale production in California as well as states all over the U.S. is very important as it can help fill variety gaps in local and regional availability.
Atlanta — the city with the most streets named after peaches
Fruit harvested for long distance shipping must be picked firm to prevent bruising during transit. While recent years have brought advances in how peaches are handled in post harvest, most everyone agrees that the best peaches are the ones that are allowed to ripen on the tree. That's why a local peach is better: more time on the tree. The range will vary on a tree-ripened peach and there are ways to transport it a long distance, but they are expensive and risky. It's best to wait for and brag about your local farmer and that golden fruit full of juice and flavor grown just over the hill there.
Personally, my "better" peach is not right around the corner but it is close by. Since I live on the coast it doesn't get hot enough to produce consistent fruit here so I won't plant a tree at my house. Fortunately my family found a farmer who has developed a unique way to sell some of his fruit. A few years ago David Mas Masmoto, a second generation farmer in the central valley near Fresno, California took out one of his modern, more colorful, but less flavorful varieties of peach and replaced it with a variety called Elberta. The variety is spectacular but easily bruises so instead of bringing the fruit to the customer, Mas found an inventive way to bring the customer to the fruit.
Elberta's Mas Masmoto's farm
Every winter Mas puts his Elberta orchard up for adoption. Prospective "parents" must submit an application with the reason why they want to adopt and pay a modest fee. In exchange and if selected, the parents will get a regular update on the progress of their tree(s) and, over two weekends in August, will come to harvest the fruit on the tree by hand (and have a marvelous picnic in the orchard). The tree will produce 300 pounds or more of delicious fruit but it is the experience of hand picking (and the pain of tossing damaged fruit on the ground) that make the experience a memorable one. This process also bypasses the normal handling and distribution chain required to sell this product in a grocery store - making it less likely the fruit will be damaged. It's certainly true of mine - after I spend the morning harvesting them I am extra careful about getting them home.
Elberta's again- prior to "cobblering"
So if you think your local peach is better than mine, bring it! Share your variety and area grown. I'll put Mas' fruit up against anyone's. Chances are you will probably be right, though, if you are lucky enough to buy (or grow) a tree-ripened peach.
James and Mas
Many thanks to John Walker and Dana Peters for contributing to this post.