A “game of the century” in football seems to occur much more frequently than the name implies. Last weekend’s contest between highly-ranked Clemson and Georgia attracted a good deal of attention from loyal fans on both sides. The animosity generated by athletic rivalries may become most intense in close proximity to both institutions. This rivalry has been contested on the gridiron since 1897.

A “border war” about peaches emphasizes the importance of this agricultural commodity to both Georgia and South Carolina.

Georgia earned its designation as the Peach State in the late 19th century when the state began exporting peaches to northern states, and the Georgia Legislature made it official in 1995. But South Carolina produces more peaches than any other state in the country other than California.

Despite the adversarial posture in athletics, UGA and Clemson researchers have worked together for many years to help peach producers overcome the challenges of growing the iconic and delicious fruit.

Similar growing conditions in the two states create an agricultural playing field where Clemson and UGA peach researchers plan and coordinate defense strategies against diseases, pests and climate variations. Common insect pests include San Jose scale, plum curculio and peach tree borers. To help combat these culprits, the universities cooperated to create a joint faculty appointment for a peach entomologist.

In 2016, Brett Blaauw joined the faculty as an assistant professor at both Clemson and UGA and as a member of both universities’ peach teams. His research focuses on integrating insect behavior and ecology to effectively and sustainably manage insect pests in Southeastern peach orchards.

“A lot of issues peach producers have in terms of insects span both states — and often the work we do in one state affects growers in both states,” Blaauw said. “In a lot of ways, it just makes sense to have someone in this split position.”

Blaauw works closely with pathologists and horticulturists from both colleges, as well as Clemson and UGA Cooperative Extension agents and peach producers in both states.

This season, Blaauw is collaborating with Clemson plant pathologist Guido Schnabel and horticulturist Juan Carlos Melgar to investigate how various mulching techniques can impact soil health and the subsequent impacts on tree health and insect pests. Blaauw and Schnabel are also investigating how using horticultural oils to manage San Jose scale can be incorporated into the current disease management program for peaches.

While Georgia lays claim to the Peach State moniker, South Carolina produces more peaches, likely due in part to how difficult it is to maintain the crop on the same land over many seasons, Blaauw said.

“Many issues in peach production come from growing on the same soil over and over,” he said. “In a state where there is a long history of growing peaches, it is becoming harder and harder to grow peaches because of insect and disease issues attacking the fruit.”

Soils in which producers have been growing peaches for years can harbor bacteria, fungi and nematodes that can stress the trees. Blaauw and other researchers are looking for ways to mitigate this by adding different mulches to create healthier soils with the goal of “making healthier trees.”

One objective is to study whether improving soil health can support “good” microbes, nematodes and bacteria that can attack the larvae of insect pests, such as peach tree borers and plum curculio, whose larvae attack tree roots. Other objectives focus on assessing the influence of improving soil organic matter on soil water and nutrient availability, and on fruit and tree diseases.

Other peach collaborations between the universities include UGA peach horticulturist Dario Chavez, who is working with Clemson researchers on the use of plant growth regulators and rootstock trials to improve economic and environmental sustainability.

Chavez and UGA Extension fruit disease specialist Phil Brannen are also collaborating with Clemson peach breeder and geneticist Ksenija Gasic in another battle against Armillaria root rot, a soil-borne disease that can remain dormant in the soil for many years, making infested land unsuitable for susceptible host plants for many years.

Although they have seen good-natured ribbing by growers on both sides of the state line — with both Georgia and South Carolina claiming fruit superiority — both Blaauw and Brannen agree on one thing.

“Here’s the easy part. Both Georgia peaches and South Carolina peaches are 10 times better — maybe 100 times better — than California peaches, and that’s not even a lie,” Brannen said.

“Honestly, both are very good, but they are all better than California peaches,” Blaauw agreed, laughing.

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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