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North Carolina's Sandhills -- The perfect place for the perfect peach

By D. G. Martin
Posted Friday, July 1, 2005

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One of the great joys of summertime for many North Carolina families is a drive to the Sandhills to visit one of the roadside peach stands that dot the region.

North Carolina's Sandhills cover parts of Moore, Montgomery, Richmond, Scotland, Hoke, Cumberland, Harnett, and Lee counties.

One reason these peach outings are so popular is that the Sandhills are such a short distance from North Carolina’s largest cities. The region is a little more than a one-hour drive from Charlotte, the Triad, or the Triangle areas--just the right distance for a one-day family trip.

The well-drained Sandhills provide for peach trees what the California Napa Valley does for grape vines.

Still, the main reason for the trip is the peach itself. The well-drained Sandhills provide for peach trees what the California Napa Valley does for grape vines. When the peach blossoms survive the late winter frosts and when spring and early summer bring the right amount of rain, it is hard to find anything that tastes better than a Sandhills peach.

Even a perfect peach has to be picked and eaten at the right time. Peaches are temperamental. A just-picked, fully ripened peach can taste better than the most elegant dessert at a five-star restaurant. But peaches do not age well. A perfectly delicious, fully ripe peach is right on the edge of disaster. Deterioration and decay begin almost immediately. The best peach will not be as good after a few hours, and it can be a mushy mess of decay in a few days or less.

Peaches don't travel well either. Ripe ones bruise easily. Temperature variations and the lapse of time make the peach less and less appealing every minute after it leaves the tree.

So the best way for a North Carolina family to get a bite of a most delicious peach is to buy a ripe one right after it is picked.

Some suppliers try to get around peaches' temperamental nature by picking them before they are fully mature and letting them ripen on the way to market. Unfortunately, the full sweet taste of a perfect peach develops only when it ripens on the tree. If it is picked too early, it will miss the unbeatable flavor that only comes from being attached to the tree until the very end.

The temperamental peach can sometimes drive a peach farmer crazy as he tries to manage the timing of its growth and harvest. But its nature is also a godsend for the Sandhill growers. It is that temperamental nature that keeps families driving down to the Sandhills to experience the perfect peach taste that is available only close to the source.

Over the last few years, many North Carolina small farmers found that they can no longer compete with the larger operations. As much as they love farming and farm life, many have had to find other lines of work.

Sandhills peach farmers face some of the same challenges. But, as a result of the peach’s temperamental quality, freshly picked peaches sold by the orchard owners fresh off the trees are worth much more than those sold before they are ripe to large wholesalers and grocery store chains.

This phenomenon helps explain why North Carolina peach farmers have resisted the pressures of consolidation longer than most small farmers.

Since it is better to buy peaches as close to the source as possible, small orchards can make more money selling directly at their roadside stands than they can by selling large quantities to wholesalers.

Thankfully, there are still plenty of these family-run orchards in the Sandhills, where we can buy those precious peaches from the same people who grow them.

My favorite stopping place is the Auman Orchard in Moore County north of West End on Highway 73.

Two or three times a year I drive down from Chapel Hill, collect a few bushels, and rush them back to my friends. The Auman Orchard has lots of other fans in Chapel Hill. Former University of North Carolina President William Friday always asks me to bring him back a bag of Auman peaches if he is not able to make the trip himself. When Friday and his wife, Ida, drive down to the Aumans, they always bring back a bag for his neighbor Georgia Kyser, the widow of the famous bandleader Kay Kyser.

For as long as anybody who is still alive today can remember, the Auman family has been selling peaches from a packing shed right behind their family home. Until his recent death, Clyde Auman was the “Dean of Sandhills Peaches.”

Clyde Auman’s father had a small orchard in West End. When Clyde was a boy in the 1920's, he and his brothers expanded the family operations by leasing orchards from others. Without any capital, they had to operate on a sharecropping basis. The orchard owners supplied the fertilizer and other out-of-pocket expenses. The boys worked the orchard and then split the proceeds, 50-50, with the owner.

Every extra dollar went to buy land. Before too long, Clyde Auman’s family was one of the largest landowners in Moore County. Every day during the summer peach season Auman presided over the business from the packing shed behind the family home-- greeting customers, giving directions to the seasonal workers, sorting out the peaches, and regularly sampling the product.

I first met Clyde Auman back in 1964. His sons, Watts and Bob, were my friends at Davidson College. Later, Watts and I served together in the Army at Fort Bragg. Watts finished his tour of duty and went back home to West End to work on the peach farm. Soon afterward, the Army conducted maneuvers in Moore County and the surrounding area. As part of the war games, they assigned me to play the part of a “behind enemy lines” secret agent—sending back information, picking up downed pilots, getting instructions to other spies, and recruiting helpers. I called Watts and asked him if his family would take in a “spy” for a few weeks. They agreed. During those few weeks, I learned a lot more about peach farming than I did about spying.

Watts Auman has now taken over his father's place on the farm and inside the peach shed. All through the day during peach season, customers drive up to the shed in a continuous stream. Watts greets them all. As his father did before him, Watts introduces the visitors to each other. Whenever I am there, I meet new friends from all over the state.

The Auman orchard is not a tourist attraction as such. In fact, the packing shed is just too old to get spruced up. Maybe it is part of the charm. Visiting the Auman Orchard is like the visit to real cousins in the country. There are plenty of things to see and experience, the peach orchards, for instance. Or you can step inside the old West End railroad depot building. Watts had it moved to the farm years ago when the railroad declared it to be surplus. You can sit around awhile, watch Watts and his helpers grade the peaches, and visit the other customers. It can be like a trip back in time.

When I was staying with the Aumans during my army days, Watts introduced me to another young peach farmer, Chesley Greene. Back then, Chesley had recently finished North Carolina State and completed a tour in the army. He was living in an old deserted gas station near his hometown of Lilesville in Anson County. But like Watts' father had done earlier, Chesley was working his way into the peach business by leasing orchards from others. He was saving all his money to buy land and equipment. Chesley helped me with my “spy business.” We got to be even better friends when he found out that my wife's grandmother had taught him at the Lilesville elementary school.

Like most peach farmers, Chesley's business has had its ups and downs, but he has prospered, raising a wonderful family, and sending his children to college and on to graduate school. But during peach season all of them still gather around the Pee Dee Orchard’s peach stand on Highway 74 east of Lilesville, just before you reach the bridge across the Pee Dee River. Gathered around their peach stand during the summer, dressed in their work clothes, Chesley's clan could pass for a farm family from the Depression Era.

I will not get into the friendly argument between Watts and Chesley about whose peaches are better. If I did, I would just say that I know that when one of them runs short of peaches, the other comes to the rescue with a supply from his own orchard. So far as I know, their customers have never known the difference.

But Chesley Greene has something that the Aumans do not offer--something that always draws me to the Pee Dee Orchard stand in summertime, whenever I am close by.

Chesley's family makes ice cream, fresh peach ice cream, right there at the peach stand. I can buy a giant cone of it for a dollar or two. When I do, I get to eat the best ice cream I have ever tasted.

“We don't make much money with our ice cream,” Chesley said, “but it sure keeps our customers coming back.”

“It's not only fresh,” Chesley continued, “but it has a secret ingredient that makes it taste even better than any other peach ice cream, anywhere.”

Worrying that he was using some artificial substance to enhance the flavor, I pressed him to tell me the secret. “It is all natural,” he promised, “But I am not going to give away my secret.”

After I promised not to tell anyone else, Chesley finally did tell me his secret. And, just as he said, “It's all natural.”

Watts Auman and Chesley Greene are just two of a proud group of Sandhills peach farmers.

“There are lots of others you should mention, lots of other good peach growers around here.” Watts told me. “We are like a big clan. And the truth is, all Sandhills peaches are almost always real good, if you get them fresh and ripe.”

“I might think mine are just a little better. But the others think the same thing about their peaches, too.”

Here is my advice for your next summer outing. Put the family in the car. Drive down to the Sandhills and stop at several different peach stands in the area. Be sure you talk to the owners and learn as much as you can about their operation. Buy a small bag of their ripest peaches. Sample them on your way to the next peach stand. Visit at least three or four of them. On the way back home you can decide which one is your favorite.

Whichever one you choose, I promise you this: It will not be long before you will be driving down to the Sandhills to visit that favorite peach stand again.

***********************************

D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch on Sunday’s at 5:00 p.m.

 
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North Carolina's Sandhills -- The perfect place for the perfect peach

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