Fresh peaches and cream at two Sandhills marketsBy Hannah Miller
A dark brown, 10-year old mutt named Lily at Pee Dee Orchards roadside market spends her summer afternoons eating ice cream and, from time to time, cooling off in the peach cooler. The rest of the time, she entertains hundreds of travelers on U.S. 74 who stop by the market for homemade ice cream on their way to and from North Carolina and South Carolina beaches. The place is located just west of the Pee Dee River, in the heart of Pee Dee EMC territory.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Junior Thomas, a home remodeler from Hickory and member of Rutherford EMC, asked how you wake up Lily. She lay near his feet as he relaxed in a rocking chair in the former peach packing shed. "Plenty of ice cream," replied Stephen Greene. He's the son of the orchard owners, Chesley and Andrea Greene, and he and his sister, Susan Fowler, sell ice cream and pies at a nearby window.
"I ain't sharing mine," Thomas announced.
Some 25 miles north, near Candor in east Montgomery County, beach-bound travelers on U.S. 220 (I-73/74) can sit in the shade of a gazebo and a picnic shelter outside Johnson's Peaches to enjoy that farm market's homemade ice cream and peach dumplings.
"It's so cool and pleasant out here," said Barbara Nixon one recent day. She and her husband, Roger, and two friends, Bill and Patsy Hooper, were returning home to the Booneville/Elkin area from a beach trip. First-timers at Johnson's, the Nixons came because their son-in-law recommended it. "He loves this ice cream," Barbara Nixon said.
Pee Dee Orchards and Johnson's Peaches are two of many farm markets across the country offering customers enticing extras along with fresh produce. Blessed with locations directly on the main routes to North Carolina and South Carolina beaches, Pee Dee Orchards branched out into ice cream in the mid-1990s, and Johnson's did in 2000. Both use their own peaches for flavoring, Pee Dee uses its scuppernongs, and they both offer other popular flavors.
Pee Dee Orchards gets traffic heading east and Johnson's gets it heading south. "We have lots of people out of Ohio and West Virginia," Barbara Johnson says. She and Garrett Johnson, who own the place, are also members of Pee Dee EMC.
A water sculpture burbles in the yard at the Johnsons' state-of-the-art, 6,000-square-foot market (opened in 2012) and produce is arrayed across a front porch. Barbara shares the spacious ice cream facility inside with the Johnsons' cousin, Betty Thompson, who makes peach dumplings by the dozens. When the market opens in mid-May, says Barbara, customers say, "I've been waiting all winter for these peach dumplings."
The families' entry into ice cream coincided with a change in the Sandhills peach industry, which was once a shipping center. "Nobody in North Carolina is shipping peaches," says Chesley Greene, who grows 25 varieties on 150 acres. Instead, the Greenes and Johnsons and their neighbors sell through farmers markets, farm-to-table organizations and roadside markets.
In May, when peaches are just coming in for Pee Dee Orchards, Susan's and Stephen's ice cream will bring in more dollars than peaches do. But that's reversed in June. At Johnson's, too, ice cream is just an extra, while peaches — "That's our livelihood," says Barbara Johnson.
To their customers, the markets are a chance to take a break from driving and be greeted by a friendly smile. "You have fun," Barbara Johnson instructs one as she hands an order out the window.
And quite a few fresh peaches go home with the refreshed multitudes. As he got out of his rocking chair and prepared to hit the road, Junior Thomas told his daughter, Carol Lattimore: "Let's get two of them bags of peaches."