RIDGE SPRING, S.C. (AP) - An agreement signed earlier this year by the U.S. and Mexican governments has allowed sweet, juicy Southern peaches to be sold in grocery stores south of the border for the first time in 17 years.
Farmers in South Carolina and Georgia - the nation's second- and third-largest peach producers - now have access to markets closed to them since 1994, when Mexico banned peach exports from the Southeast over concerns about invasive pests. The new deal involves strict protocols to keep fruit-eating insects from being carried into Mexico.
The restart of exports likely means better prices for farmers, particularly now - at the height of peach season - when the largest quantities are being picked and sold, said Desmond Layne, a peach specialist at Clemson University.
"It gives them more places to sell their product for profit," said Layne, also known as "Dr. Peach." ''That's a great thing for our growers. There are a lot of people in Mexico, and a lot of people who eat peaches."
While Georgia is known as the peach state, California and South Carolina produce more. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates South Carolina will produce 90,000 tons of peaches this year, compared to Georgia's 40,000. Both states lag far behind California, expected to produce 815,000 tons.
California peach farmers have had access to Mexican markets for more than 10 years, said Alyn Kiel, spokeswoman for the USDA's animal and plant inspection service, which began pursuing the agreement for South Carolina and Georgia in 2008. Export protocols differ among states because they have different pests, Kiel said.
South Carolina and Georgia received clearance only after several years of negotiations. Even after the U.S. and Mexico signed a deal in February, the industry had to work out details for a Mexican supervisor to oversee field and packaging inspections on Southern farms.
Frustrated by slow correspondence, Chalmers Carr, owner of the Southeast's largest peach farm, flew to Mexico with USDA officials in April for a three-hour meeting with Mexican officials. An inspector arrived in South Carolina on May 31, and the first truckload of peaches bound for Mexico left Carr's Titan Farms in South Carolina in late June.
By Friday, the farm had sent 13 tractor-trailer loads of peaches across the border to be sold at grocery stores in Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico. Several more trucks were being filled Friday afternoon, each one carrying about 1,540 sealed boxes of peaches.
For Titan workers, it's a source of pride. The farm, which has half a million peach trees in three counties, employs 470 Hispanic workers through a federal migrant labor program. American and Mexican flags hang in the packing plant.
When the first load left, workers cheered, Carr said.
"We're more than excited," said Esperanza Orozco, who's worked for Titan for 14 years and helps manage packing operations. "We're very proud to work for this company, and now it goes from a Mexican hand to a Mexican mouth. The product we work with our hearts goes to Mexican customers."
The federal program requires the farm to provide transportation to and from Mexico, along with food and housing while the migrant workers are in South Carolina. Some workers would stuff peaches in their suitcases and other belongings to carry home to relatives, but a three-day bus ride can be tough on poorly-packed, perishable fruit.
The peaches Titan Farms ships are kept cool in refrigerated trucks, and Carr said they can be in Mexican stores within three days of being picked.
"Now, they're able to taste our peaches fresh," said Orozco, adding that she's letting relatives know through Facebook where to buy Titan peaches. "We were hoping and waiting for this day."
Besides expanding where farmers can sell, the agreement provides a market for what Carr calls "underappreciated" peaches. Mexican buyers prefer small peaches, while American markets demand peaches of at least 2 Â¾-inch diameter, he said.
So far, Titan is the only farm taking advantage of the opportunity, partly because the final deal came late for a season that, in Georgia and South Carolina, starts in May and goes through mid-September. The protocol for certified shipments involves setting and checking traps for pests, inspecting peaches in the field, cutting open hundreds more in the packing house, then cutting several from each box before loading it. Meanwhile, Mexican-bound peaches must never come near other peaches. Boxes are checked again at the border.
Josh Corley, Titan's Mexican fruit coordinator, estimates that for each shipment, about 1,000 peaches must be cut open, inspected and discarded.
Other farmers opted out of the process, doubtful after three years that a deal with Mexico would ever come, Carr said. He expects more to participate next year.
"It's a tremendous opportunity to get into Mexico," said Duke Lane III, president of the Georgia Peach Council and owner of Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley, Ga. He said one Georgia farmer could start shipping to Mexico in August, and he hopes to sell there next year.
"Mexico is an untapped market for peaches," he added. "With the current prices of fuel and labor and inputs, we need to take advantage of all opportunities."