(June 2) A cold winter, a dry and sunny spring and just enough rain has produced one of the biggest, best crops of Southeast peaches in years, grower-shippers said.

But a similar bumper crop in California could keep prices down.

“This is the best early crop I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in it 15 years,” said Duke Lane III, a salesman for Lane Packing Co., Fort Valley, Ga. “Usually, when you have good size you sacrifice taste. Not this year. We’re packing quite a few halves and very few eights (2½-inch and 2 1/8-inch sizes).”

On May 25, the USDA reported shipments of mostly 2½-inch and 2¼-inch peaches.

Lane Packing began shipping its early-variety ruby prince peaches on May 15, right on schedule, Lane said.

“This is the best crop I’ve seen in 10 or 15 years,” said Chick Ciccarelli, co-owner of Riverside Fruit & Vegetable Sales Inc., Fort Pierce, Fla. “It’s something to be proud of.”

Perfect growing conditions will mean a bigger crop than usual for Riverside, Ciccarelli said. Riverside began packing on time, around May 18, and will ship through August, with volumes peaking the second week in June, also right on schedule.

“This is going to be one of the best crops we’ve had in many years,” said Kurt Schweitzer, owner of Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., Greencastle, Pa., which also has Georgia and South Carolina offices. “We’ve had very good weather, good sets and exceptional reads on sugar.”

Optimal growing conditions, combined with several rounds of thinning the orchards, have allowed Keystone’s growers to ship plenty of the big sizes its chain store customers want. But with California also turning out a big crop this year, finding good markets could be a challenge.

PRICES:

On June 2, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $12.25-13.25 for half-bushel cartons of Georgia and South Carolina peaches 2½ inches and larger, down from $15.25-16.25 last year at the same time. Prices for smaller Southeast peaches were much lower: Peaches 2¼-2½ inches were selling for $6.25-8.25, down from last year’s price of $13.25.

About 811.7 million pounds of peaches had been shipped nationwide through May 29, up from about 620.8 million at the same time last year, the USDA reported. But Southeast shipments were down: 102.8 million pounds had been shipped from Georgia, down from 106.6 million last year. And 46.5 million pounds of South Carolina peaches had been shipped, down from 51.2 million at the same time last year.

The Heidrich Corp., Orlando, Fla., began selling its growers’ dixie golds on May 10, with empresses from Georgia and South Carolina following in late May, said Joe Heidrich, the company’s owner. The early golds suffered from poor color, Heidrich said, but had improved later in the deal, paving the way for large, high-quality empresses.

Heidrich, like Schweitzer, is concerned about the impact a big, early California crop will have on markets.

“This won’t be a year where we get a jump on the West,” Heidrich said. “At the bottom end of the deal, we’ll be about $2 below where I thought we’d be. I don’t feel real optimistic for good, high prices, but we should be able to make up for it with a big crop.”

Benji Richter, president of Richter & Co. Inc., Charlotte, N.C., which sells peaches for growers in Georgia and South Carolina, said both states were turning out large-volume, high-quality crops.

“It looks fabulous, unbelievable,” Richter said. “We had a real good winter, a decent spring, plenty of sunshine, and the dryness added to the sugar and color.”

South Carolina product began shipping May 20, with volume expected June 1, Richter said.

Dickey Farms Inc., Musella, Ga., got into full swing with its sun brights, spring princes and empresses around May 17, said Robert Dickey, vice president. He predicted slightly higher volumes and much better quality than characterized last year’s crop, with the deal winding up around mid-August.