Amancio Palma, right, manages the huge crew of more than 400 H-2A workers who work in the peach orchards. With Chalmers Carr III, they look over peaches ripening in mid-May.
When you have 4,900 acres of peaches and 600,000 trees to manage, how do you keep track of everything—the planting, pruning, thinning, spraying, irrigating, multiple pickings, packing, and the 520 workers doing all these tasks?
Well, you could add another 700 acres of bell peppers and broccoli—just to keep everyone busy in the off season!
Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, is the largest peach farm not only in South Carolina but on the entire East Coast. Owners, Chalmers Carr III and his wife, Lori Anne, added the vegetables to keep the workers and packing house engaged when peaches are not in their 16-week harvest season. People management is one of their most important activities.
As for the peaches, it helps to think of them in 20-acre blocks. Some 56 varieties ripen in a staggered fashion, starting with Flavorich and Queencrest about May 10 (five days ahead of normal this year) and ending September 15 with Autumn Prince. There is also some replication by location. Geographic spread is used to reduce risk from spring freezes or hailstorms, and assure a steady peach output season long.
Titan Farms is a major supplier of peaches, serving nine distribution centers for Walmart alone.
“Walmart is one of our biggest customers. We service quite a few of the largest chain stores on the East Coast, but this year, our relationship with Walmart has grown even more,” Carr said.
Titan Farms has also had a long relationship with a sales agent, Richter and Co., located in Charlotte, North Carolina. Richter arranges all the sales and shipping for Titan Farms. Richter also manages nine of Walmart’s distribution centers.
Walmart has become sold on southern peaches, Carr said. “Even though they are somewhat smaller than fruit from California, they are sweeter,” he said. “We say, they’re going to win the beauty contest ‘cause they’re big and pretty and everything else, but we kind of think we have the personality, the flavor, and the profile to go with it.”
Early peaches run about 2 ¼ inches, later ones 2 ¾ and 3 inches, he said. Early peaches are clingstone, transitioning to semiclings and freestone by June 15.
“We pack 80 to 100 loads of peaches a week,” Carr said during an interview with Good Fruit Grower in his wood-paneled, brown-tile-floored suite of offices at Titan Farms. Each load contains 1,500 cases, each case a half bushel, or 25 pounds.
To get an interview with Chalmers Carr, you have to go through two Beths—Beth McCreery who answers the phone, and executive assistant Beth Johnes, who filters and sorts, deciding who gets part of his time. But once inside, you find openness on all questions and have his nearly undivided attention—with some interruptions. People do get access to this busy man who describes himself as the quarterback of the operation.
Titan Farms is a family operation, but not in the usual southern sense of old extended family. Chalmers bought the farm in 2001, after farming for some years in Florida and then leasing the South Carolina farm three years before he bought it. Back then, the farm was 1,500 acres, all peaches, no vegetables.
The vegetables fit in. Titan Farms grows both a fall and a winter crop of broccoli and peppers, 350 acres of each, to provide work for H-2A workers both in the field and in the packing house. The vegetables extend the packing and sales season from 16 weeks to 38 weeks. Most of the broccoli is field-packed. Nothing is harvested from January to April.
There are several key employees in the operation, some family and some almost like family. “I have a great team,” Carr said. “We all work and play together.”
Carr’s father, Chalmers Carr, Jr. (nicknamed Hap), is a retired Air Force general who manages the packing house with military discipline during the peach packing season. From his glass-walled office, he can see the packing line and workers, and monitor the computerized sorting equipment.
“He sees things in black and white. That’s the way it has to be in quality control and in food safety,” Carr said about his dad.
The key to quality control is to ruthlessly throw out poor fruit, Carr says, and the 55 to 60 female H-2A workers from Mexico do it. “They’re the last ones to touch the peaches,” he said. “We try to do our best out in the field, but what they do in the packing shed makes all the difference.
“Women are more attuned to quality,” he said. “It hurts to throw away fruit—that’s why I don’t go out there—and we throw out 18 to 20 percent, but we have fewer than 1 percent of our loads rejected.”
Lori Anne manages the office. Records are kept on orders, shipments, and the individual performance of 470 H-2A employees, most from Mexico, and 50 others.
“We pay piece rate on everything we can—pruning, thinning, picking,” said Amancio Palma, the manager of field labor operations for Titan Farms. Good workers can make more than $200 a day, well more than the $9.12 wage guaranteed to them, he said.
Palma has worked at Titan Farms for 19 years, since before the Carrs bought it. He starts work at four each morning and stays until the work is done for the day. He supervises all the field operations, including planting, pruning, thinning, and harvesting.
Two other farm managers, Jason Rodgers and Dwight Harmon, share the responsibilities of land cultivation and preparation, crop protection, planting, worker protection, irrigation, and land and wildlife management.
The Carr’s two children, Chalmers IV, 14, and Carly Anne, 13, work on the farm when their school schedules allow.
Carr’s mother’s family grew fruits and vegetables in North Carolina, where Chalmers III worked during the summer, and later gave him the connection to manage and buy a farm in Florida. He graduated from Clemson University, where he majored in agricultural economics.
When Carr sees a new practice he thinks will work on the farm, he adopts it quickly. This spring, he planted 200 acres of peaches on berms—based on Clemson plant pathologist Dr. Guido Schnabel’s research findings that trees could survive oak root rot (Armillaria) if planted that way and then the soil removed from the tree collar area (see “Peaches on Ridges.”)
He’s put trickle irrigation on about 80 percent of his peach blocks now. The farm has 26 irrigation ponds. Water is delivered by 11-gallons-per-hour microjet sprinklers.
“Water is the key to growing a healthy tree that will produce great-tasting, large fruit,” he said. “Microjet sprinkler is the best way to put water out, the most conservative way to do it. We don’t have good water wells, so we use surface water and ponds. We have to manage the water resource very carefully.”
Carr has tried, but hasn’t adopted, orchard platforms, perpendicular V orchard designs, or mechanical thinners. He’s stayed with the open-vase, five-scaffold training system.
“We recently leased acreage having some quad V trees,” Carr said, “but that system has never worked well for us.” He’s stayed with the 16 by 20 feet and 15 by 19 feet spacings, with 140 to 150 trees per acre, limiting tree height to eight to nine feet and minimizing ladder use.
All trees are pruned twice a year. Summer pruning is used to open the trees to sunlight and obtain better color. Winter pruning is done to keep all trees to a height where a worker can pick or thin more trees from the ground.
Titan Farms is located on “The Ridge,” one of three peach-growing areas in South Carolina. Located where the Coastal Plains and its sandy soils meet the clay soils of the Piedmont, The Ridge is about 650 feet in elevation and water flows to two watersheds, dropping about 200 feet from top to bottom. The elevation and air flow reduce the risk of spring frost damage.
Clean cultivation with herbicides is used in all the orchards, not only to provide a good working surface and to reduce insect damage but to reduce frost risk and competition for water and nutrients. Bloom occurs in mid-March, and frost risk continues to April 5 or so.