Jeff Wainwright stood in an orchard beside a giant crate of freshly picked peaches Wednesday and described what the sweet smell wafting up from the red orbs meant to him.
He is president of farming operations for Lane Southern Orchards in Peach County, but rejected a suggestion that the peaches must smell like money.
“It smells like a lot of hard work from a lot of people, a lot of luck and a lot of blessings,” he said. “You look at this and you think of the money spent and the hours out in the cold. It’s a big reward for a lot of people.”
Standing there along with him in the orchard near Massee Lane Gardens was Mark Sanchez, the CEO of Lane. Sanchez said this is the best crop growers have seen in at least five years. They have had some hard luck with weather, either from winters that were too warm or freezes after trees started blooming, and sometimes both.
“This year the conditions were perfect,” Sanchez said. “All the way from winter time, when we had plenty of chill hours. We’ve been blessed with good weather, a lot of rain and cool weather in the spring.”
They had thought a couple of freezing nights in early March might have damaged the peaches they are picking now, but that hasn’t turned out to be the case. Sanchez said the peaches that were lost to the freeze would have been thinned out any way, so in effect nature saved him some labor.
A good peach crop has big economic ramifications for Middle Georgia because of the labor involved in the harvest. Sanchez said Lane will employ about 500 people this year, compared to about 300 last year. About 300 of those working this year have come up from Mexico on a temporary work visa, called H-2A.
Local businesses see an impact in bad years when there are fewer workers, plus many business directly support the peach growers, which is why Sanchez and Wainwright get asked about the crop pretty much everywhere they go.
“From the local hardware store, the chemical guy, the fertilizer guy, the tire guy — it’s just a domino effect in the community,” Wainwright said. “The busier we are the more money we generate.”
In a good year the Georgia peach crop, most of which comes from Middle Georgia, generates about $50 million in total revenue.
Wainwright was formerly owner of Taylor Orchards in Reynolds but in 2016 they merged with Lane. Lane now has 5,000 acres of peach trees, making it the largest grower in the state.
Picking started May 8 and is now in full swing. It will stay that way until about mid-August. Wainwright said they are picking 15,000 to 20,000 boxes of peaches per day, which are then taken to Lane’s packing house on Ga. 96 in Peach County. It’s a popular tourist attraction that draws an estimated 300,000 people or more each year.
Sanchez said growers have been especially happy to see a good crop after so many bad years.
“We love it,” he said. “The years of a really short crop is pretty stressful.”