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Midstate farmers reminisce about Georgia staple, look to future

FORT VALLEY — It’s about time for picking peaches in Middle Georgia. After generations, Peach County still remains an epicenter for Georgia peaches with major orchards still being operated by the same families that started them decades ago.

Four of the major families are the Rumphs, Dickeys, Lanes and Pearsons. Members of those families recently shared their legacies and discussed the future at an event on the Fort Valley State University campus.

Wilbur Rumph, of Marshallville, can tell you he has never grown a commercial peach in his life, but his family once operated the historic Willow Lake Plantation. He may not grow Georgia’s signature fruit, but he’s well aware that his great-uncle, Samuel Rumph, revolutionized the peach industry with the introduction of the Elberta peach, named for Samuel Rumph’s wife, as well as the creation of the first refrigerated road car for the peaches to travel to the northeastern United States in the 1870s.

“He was the first to have faith in growing peaches on a large scale,” Rumph said.

Rumph, a retired engineer, also recalled working in those peach orchards as a child.

“My first job brought me 5 cents an hour,” Rumph said.

All the peach growers at the FVSU event said they remember when Peach County revolved around peaches. For instance, the school year was set around the peach farming schedule.

Duke Lane, of Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley, recalled a time when the local high school had no baseball team and there was no Little League.

“Everything was so involved in peaches that those pastimes didn’t get much attention,” Lane said.

When summertime came, the question was “Where are you working this summer?” and the correct answer was typically one of the local peach orchards.

But students weren’t the only ones heading to the orchards for work. The peach industry also attracted migrant workers.

The Leap Hope Hotel, which used to house migrant workers, still sits on the Pearson Farms property. Al Pearson said workers in the 1800s came from all over Georgia and the country. “The people came because they knew there was work here,” he said.

Robert Dickey III, of Dickey Farms in Musella, is the fifth generation in his family to grow peaches. He marvels at how his forefathers managed to survive in the industry.

“How our grandfathers got those peaches to market without the chemicals and tools we have today, I don’t know,” Dickey said.

Indeed, the peach industry has changed because of technology. The work force has also changed as most of the work now requires an employee who is 18 or older.

But many things remain the same. The diseases and insects are the same, and migrant workers still travel for work.

Pearson said now more migrants are traveling from Mexico and Florida. With the down economy, Pearson said he has received more referrals than ever from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Nevertheless, he said it’s still a hard seasonal job.

“It’s tough to get people who want to pick peaches,” Pearson said.

One thing’s for certain: The farmers have no doubt the industry still has a future.

“There’s still good demand for a Georgia peach,” Lane said.

To contact writer Natasha Smith, call 923-3109, extension 236.

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