Propelled by a mild winter and early spring, South Carolina's peach crop is running about two weeks ahead of schedule and the fruit is plentiful and high-quality, according to a Clemson Extension peach specialist.

Desmond Layne, a horticulture professor at Clemson, urges consumers not to wait for varieties that typically ripen later in the season.

"Some of the freestone varieties that people often hold out for are already ripening," Layne said. "A lot of people like the freestones that ripen around the Fourth of July, such as Red Globe, Harvester and Winblo, because the flesh separates easily from the stone (or pit). Those varieties are coming in right now, so people shouldn't wait.

"South Carolina farmers already have shipped more than 1,000 tractor trailer loads — close to 40 million pounds — of peaches so far, more than double that of Georgia," he said.

Layne credits a moderate winter and warm, early spring weather for advancing the state's crop, as it did strawberries.

"At most locations, we didn't have the typical freezes during bloom time. Most of our horticultural crops are ahead of schedule," he said. "Peaches are producing not only an early crop, but also high quality and good volume. Consumers are getting a real treat this year."

With a crop value that can exceed $90 million in a good year, peaches are the state's most valuable and widely produced fruit. Its three major production areas span the state: The largest, stretching along a ridge from Augusta to Columbia, produces about half the crop; Upstate growers contribute roughly 30 percent; and the coastal plain pitches in the remainder.

"Peach growers and allied industries employ more than 1,000 people in the summer," Layne said. "And there are local businesses selling fuel, fertilizer and boxes to support the industry, so peaches have an important economic impact on local communities as well."

South Carolina is consistently the nation's second-largest peach-producing state behind California. Although Georgia purloined the "Peach State" moniker, the Palmetto State — which the South Carolina Peach Council dubs "the tastier peach state" — long has dominated the fresh market along the East Coast of the United States.

"We have a single grower who produces more peaches than the whole state of Georgia, " Layne said. "Our fruit is being shipped to all the major cities up the East Coast, and we also ship some into Mexico — markets that are quite diverse."

South Carolina's affinity for the peach stretches back to its introduction near the start of the 18th century. However, Henry William Ravenel of Aiken is credited with the first commercial shipments of South Carolina peaches in the 1850s.