Originally created 08/07/03

Terrorism affects peach farms' work



RIDGE SPRING, S.C. - Late frosts, fungus attacks, hail and low sugar content aren't the only nightmares Chalmers Carr has about his peach crop these days.

Add the fear of a terrorist attack - a guy on a motorcycle spraying poison on his fruit or dripping drops of something deadly into his irrigation tanks. Since the Sept. 11 attacks , concern about the vulnerability of America's food supply - from beef and pork to leafy vegetables - is on the rise.

Mr. Carr, the owner of Titan Farms, one of Edgefield County's largest peach farms, has joined a growing number of South Carolina and Georgia growers who are stepping up sanitation and security measures. They also are seeking a seal of approval from independent auditors to satisfy an increasing number of grocery store chains looking for assurances of product safety.

In Mr. Carr's case, that means adding a $100,000 wireless computer system that allows workers to log each bin of peaches as it leaves the orchard on hand-held computers.

Each bin has a bar code, allowing computers to track Mr. Carr's peaches from the field to the market.

"What it gets down to is traceability of product," Mr. Carr said. "I can trace a peach to the field it came from the crew that picked it. Other people can't do that right now."

That isn't the only measure growers are taking to ensure their fruit is free of bacteria and pesticide residue. At the insistence of major retail chains, growers in Georgia and South Carolina also are undergoing audits by independent labs that measure everything from the amount of chlorine in their wash water to whether workers wear hair nets and wash their hands after using the restroom.

"We never used to think about things like this," Mr. Carr said.

So far, the 2-year-old program is voluntary, said George Ponder, the coordinator of the Good Agricultural Practices Program, which is run jointly by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, the University of Georgia, the Georgia Crop Improvement Association and the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. About 25 peach and vegetable growers, most of them in south Georgia, have been certified by independent auditors.

About a dozen growers have been certified in South Carolina, including Mr. Carr's farm and nearby grower Watsonia Farms, said Martin Eubanks, a marketing specialist for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.

It costs about $1,400 to get audited by a private company such as Primus Labs of California, the biggest player in a growing field. Whether the program becomes mandatory depends on whether terrorists launch their next attack on America's food supply, Mr. Ponder said.

It's worth the price and peace of mind, Mr. Carr said.

"I can't imagine dealing with the notion of one of my peaches making someone sick," he said.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1394 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.