Peach farming far more than planting and picking

mstucka@macon.comJune 8, 2014 

A lot of work and planning go into making the Georgia Peach Festival’s peach cobbler, dubbed the world’s largest. Head chef Rich Bennett says the recipe’s pretty similar to what most people make at home.

But instead of a cup each of flour, sugar and milk, the recipe gets scaled up just a little bit.

“Instead of a cuppa-cuppa-cuppa, it’s 150 pounds of sugar, 150 pounds of flour and 32 gallons of milk,” Bennett said. Cooking could start about 2 a.m., a full 12 hours before the cobbler gets served June 14.

But peach cobbler wouldn’t be peach cobbler without peaches. And in this case, the planning for those 75 gallons of peaches donated by Lane Southern Orchard may have begun fully 15 years ago.

Time may mean a little something different to Middle Georgia’s peach growers. Al Pearson, 64, remembers his grandparents growing peaches. And it was their parents who’d started Pearson Farm on the same lick of Crawford County land still used today.

“For five generations, since 1885, this is the homeplace. We farm in other areas, we’ve scattered out a lot, but this is the homeplace,” said Pearson, who now runs the business with his son Lawton from a headquarters off U.S. 341.

It’s not the same trees, of course. Peach trees in Middle Georgia may live 12 to 15 years before they’re done growing peaches. And they typically aren’t used for production until the fourth year or so, Pearson said.

Even more important than that is the timing. Pearson Farm grows about 30 varieties of peaches, each of which might offer mature fruit for a week and a half, maybe two weeks. The different varieties of peaches spread out the picking season.

“We overlap those varieties as we are planting so we have a steady supply of peaches, instead of having a feast and famine,” Pearson said.

Farmers, of course, cannot afford to get into the same kind of trouble as the person who buys 20 tomato plants of one variety, only to have them get ripe at the same time.

To keep the operations going, local peach growers have a loyal set of labor. Pearson Farm’s field crews come through the H-2A federal guest worker program, while the packing facility is run with local laborers. Of the migrants, maybe 95 percent will return the next year. Of local workers, perhaps 75 to 80 percent will work the next year, Pearson said. Peaches are a people-intensive business, and having the same people do the work keeps the fragile fruit from perishing. Mechanization efforts failed the industry, Pearson said, leaving human judgment.

“We pick an orchard maybe seven times. There’s peaches out there when you go out the first time that aren’t going to be ready for a week to 10 days. You have to make a decision,” Pearson said, then paused.

“Each peach is a decision.”

Love that humidity

Georgia farmers have long decided to plant peaches. Middle Georgia turned out to be good for that.

“You want some high elevation. You would like to be planting that tree on good soil. You wouldn’t want that soil to be too sandy. It’d be nice if it wasn’t exposed to too many deer,” Pearson said.

Mark Sanchez, chief executive officer of Lane Southern Orchards, also oversees about 30 varieties of peaches. He’s also something of a peach preacher.

“The first thing you look for in a good peach is it’s got to be a Georgia peach,” Sanchez said Friday. “That gives you a leg up on every other peach in the marketplace. Peaches thrive in our area because of the hot, humid climate. A peach just loves that type of atmosphere, and that’s why peaches in Middle Georgia are the best in the world.”

Georgians like growing peaches, too. The state had some 12,318 acres dedicated to peaches a couple years ago, virtually identical to the amount being grown five years earlier, federal statistics show.

Georgians grow some 2.6 million cartons of peaches each year, valued at about $47 million, according to the Farm Flavor website.

All that takes people. Lane Southern Orchards alone has about 55 full-time, year-round employees, Sanchez said. About 200 seasonal workers are also hired each year, split between working in the orchards, in the packing plant and in the business’s restaurant and retail store.

Picking peaches is busy work. Sanchez compares them to vegetables, because peaches are not patient.

“When they’re ready to pick, you have to pick ‘em, and it becomes a six-, seven-day-a-week job,” he said.

The picked peaches go into big, plastic bins that are fed through a hydrocooler, which douses the peaches with near-freezing water. That quickly lowers the temperature of the peaches, which might be 95 degrees when they’re picked.

“You want to cool a peach off as fast as you can, because even after you pick it, it continues to mature,” Sanchez said. The peaches might be put into a cold storage room, then get washed, graded, packed and shipped. Peaches that are too mature to be picked are pulled from the line and can be sold in Lane’s store on Ga. 96.

“It’s a great peach, ready to eat,” Sanchez said.

Some of those ready-to-eat Lane and Pearson peaches will be handed out at the Georgia Peach Festival’s parade, which starts at 10 a.m. Saturday. By that point, dozens of Lane peaches will be baking in the cobbler.

Bennett said he’s been trying to engineer the oven near the Peach County Courthouse so it’s not burning quite as much on the bottom.

This year, he may start with Peach County government coworkers, friends and family at 2 a.m. instead of 3 a.m., setting the cobbler up for a lower-heat, longer-cooking session with the cobbler held further above the burners.

And if the bottom still burns, he says, people will still come for their serving of peach cobbler.

“No one seems to mind,” he said, “and when they’re coming through the line, everyone wants some crust.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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