James Cooley believes it’s best not to put all your eggs in one basket, or all your peaches either. That’s why the West Chesnee farmer grows 115 acres of strawberries, along with 850 acres of peaches.
“Risk is a natural part of farming, but when you can take some of the risk out, you give yourself a chance to recover when weather impacts your crop,” he says. At his operation, Cooley Farms/Strawberry Hill USA, such diversification has been a winning strategy.
In addition to growing strawberries, blackberries, cantaloupe and vegetables, Cooley has diversified through agritourism. With a café and a variety of family activities, he builds his base of customers and provides an opportunity for others to experience time on the farm.
McLeod Farms in McBee has a similar strategy. The operation grows strawberries, blackberries, grapes and a variety of other produce in addition to peaches. They also have a roadside stand, a restaurant, seasonal events for families and even an antique car museum.
“You can’t rely on one crop or one strategy to survive,” says Kemp McLeod. “Weather can knock you out, so you need to think ahead so you have options that can keep your operation going when there are circumstances that are outside your control.”
The peach business in South Carolina actually grew as a result of such circumstances. In the 1930s, the state was a major producer of asparagus, supplying large metropolitan areas like Philadelphia and New York.
But as growers in New Jersey and other states jumped on the bandwagon, the market for South Carolina asparagus declined.
Larry Yonce’s grandfather was an asparagus grower in Johnston at the time. “There were some peach orchards being planted in the Ridge area then, but when the asparagus market dried up, the growers began transitioning to more peach plantings, which then evolved to a very specialized operation.”
Today, Yonce’s farm, Big Smile South Carolina Peaches, includes 3,000 acres of peaches. He also has pecan groves and, coincidentally, grows some asparagus.
Green vegetables are also part of Titan Farms’ diversification effort. Chalmers Carr grows 385 acres of bell peppers and 325 acres of broccoli, in addition to his 5,000 acres of peaches in Ridge Spring.
“We looked for crops that would allow us to diversify outside of the peach season,” he explains. “It’s a way to generate revenue throughout the year, which improves cash flow and allows us to hire and retain good management all year.”