FORT VALLEY, Ga. — Georgia peach growers began harvesting earlier than normal and are reporting a season that’s bringing exceptional quality fruit.

“We are packing peaches big time,” Will McGehee, salesman and co-owner of Pearson Farm, said in late May. “The quality has been absolutely incredible this year. A majority of our peaches are going to No. 1s, and we haven’t had any issues with the crop. Because of that, the quality and flavor have been outstanding.”

Good quality marks Georgia peach startWhile an average packout usually sees 75% of the crop going to No. 1s, McGehee said this season is bringing 90% No. 1s.

Though peach growers are always wary of a post-Memorial Day waning of demand, McGehee said demand remains strong. He said retailers tell him Memorial Day demand helped empty many coolers.

Pearson Farm and Lane Southern Orchards began harvesting in early May, about a week earlier than normal harvesting, said Duke Lane III, Lane Southern’s vice president of sales.

Lane also characterized retail demand as strong and said Lane Southern is receiving positive feedback on the flavor of the early season varieties.

“This is a rare year for eating quality,” Lane said in late May. “I don’t remember it ever being this good. We are having sugar levels in the teens in the early fruit. Our peaches are eating like never before, and the overall quality is extremely high. The lack of rain has inhibited size somewhat, but we haven’t felt an impact yet.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported these prices for central Georgia peaches on June 1: half-bushel cartons of various yellow-flesh varieties 2½ inches and up, $14.40; 2¼ inch and up, $9.40-10.40.

In late May, Lane said prices had fallen to $15.40 for the 2½ inch and larger but remained at $10.40-12.40 for the 2¼ inch and larger.

That’s similar to last year in late May when the USDA reported half-bushel cartons of central Georgia peaches selling for $16.40 for 2½ inches and up, $12.40 for 2¼ inches and up and $10.40 for 2 1/8 inches and larger.

Lane said he expects the ongoing drought to cut sizing for the later peaches. During the early season, growers harvest mostly 2¼-inch and 2½-inch peaches.

Lane said growers expect to hit peak production in mid-June with larger volumes running through July. Georgia growers, who normally begin harvesting in mid-May, expect the season to run to mid-August as usual.

South Carolina harvesting, which normally starts about a week after Georgia, is harvesting early as well, Lane said. That state’s production usually runs into September.

Lane plans to ship 850,000 25-pound half-bushel cartons, up from the 700,000 it shipped last season. Pearson Farm expects to ship 400,000 25-pound cartons, its normal season volume.

Overall, Georgia growers expect to ship 2.5 million cartons, similar to last season, Lane said.