Vendors pessimistic about peach sales

BISHOP, Ga. - Eighty-year-old Verner Hammond's fruit and vegetable stand has drawn travelers off this stretch of U.S. Highway 441 for nearly three decades, but he might soon close up shop.


His place is so well-known that even overseas tourists stop and pose for pictures at the stand, perched directly in front of Mr. Hammond's house.

Mr. Hammond also has long-established customers, people he prays for or ones he doesn't charge because they can't afford to pay.

But an Easter freeze that destroyed much of Georgia's peach crop means he won't have that most iconic Georgia symbol that tourists are looking for, unless he can afford to buy fruit grown as far away as South America.

Add to that the climbing cost to gas up his old truck, and Mr. Hammond decided to close.

Some business owners who depend on tourists in the 20-mile stretch of U.S. 441 from Madison to Watkinsville say they expect that many tourists won't bother to stop if they can't get peaches.

But they'll weather one bad year.

Jerry and Paula Thomas said tourists begin to trickle into Thomas Orchard and Greenhouse around the middle of each May, asking about homegrown peaches.

"That's the only reason they come here during the summer," Mrs. Thomas said, adding that the business relies on peaches to help sell many of their plants.

The Thomas' said 60 percent of their peach business comes from out-of-state travelers.

"I'm sure a lot of the local people already know about the situation, but there's no way to let tourists know. I'm sure they're all going to be disappointed when they get here," Mrs. Thomas said.

She said she doesn't believe the freeze will shatter either their business or Georgia's peach industry.

A 1996 freeze also left the Thomases with no peaches to sell, but it didn't break tourists' habits.

"People still came at the same usual amount in 1997," Mrs. Thomas said.

Though some vendors will sell peaches grown in South America, Mr. Thomas said selling peaches imported from elsewhere won't do.

"I'm probably not going to have any peaches for my customers unless I can buy them from somewhere else. And I don't want to sell anything that's worse than what I grow. I don't want to mess up my business," he said.

They both remain optimistic.

"Tourists won't stop coming to see us, and we're not going out of business. Not unless someone makes us a good offer," Mrs. Thomas said.

Down the highway, Mr. Hammond says he's noticed fewer tourists in recent years - even in good peach years.

Some vendors say tourists aren't drawn to U.S. Highway 441 for peaches.

"The peach thing has been dead around here anyway. Not even one-tenth of one percentage of these tourists come here for peaches," said Charlie Brooks, who owns a shop a few yards away that sells pottery, colored glass and trinkets.

"They're buying them because they're already out on the road, coming from Florida or taking their kids to the university."