Where would we be without any Georgia peaches at all? One response, surprisingly, is a shrug. Georgia peaches account for only 0.38 percent of the state’s agricultural economy, and the state produces only between 3 and 5 percent of the national peach crop.
But this is not a simple matter of costs and profits. Georgia peaches are a product of history. And as I have documented, their story tells us much about agriculture, the environment, politics and labor in the American South.
Peaches were introduced to North America by Spanish monks in the mid-1500s. By 1607 they were widespread around Jamestown, Virginia. The trees grow readily from seed, and peach pits are easy to preserve and transport.
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Yet for such a hardy fruit, it can seem remarkably fragile. Public concern about the crop is an annual ritual. It begins in February and March, when the trees start blooming and are at significant risk if temperatures drop below freezing. Larger orchards heat trees with smudge pots or use helicopters and wind machines to stir up the air on particularly frigid nights.
In short, growing peaches is easy. But producing large, unblemished fruit that can be shipped thousands of miles away, and doing so reliably year after year, demands an intimate environmental knowledge that has developed slowly over the last century and a half of commercial peach production.
From windfall to icon
Up through the mid-19th century, peaches were primarily a kind of feral resource for Southern farmers. In the 1850s horticulturists began a selective breeding campaign for peaches and other fruits. Its most famous yield was the Elberta peach, which became one of the most successful fruit varieties of all time.
Increasingly, growers and boosters near the heart of the industry in Fort Valley sought to tell “the story” of the Georgia peach. They did so in peach blossom festivals from 1922 to 1926. Each festival featured a parade of floats, speeches by governors and members of Congress, a massive barbecue and an elaborate pageant.
The story these festivals told of Georgia as the “natural” home of the peach was as enduring as it was inaccurate. It obscured the importance of horticulturists’ environmental knowledge in creating the industry and the political connections and manual labor that kept it afloat.
Politics and work
In the 1950s and ‘60’s, growers successfully lobbied for a new peach laboratory in Byron. Their chief ally was U.S. Senator Richard B. Russell Jr., one of the most powerful members of Congress in the 20th century. The growers claimed that an expansion of federal research would shore up the peach industry; provide new crops for the South; and provide jobs for black Southerners who would, the growers maintained, otherwise join the “already crowded offices of our welfare agencies.”
Russell pushed the proposal through Congress. In time, the laboratory would play a crucial role in supplying new varieties necessary to maintain the peach industry in the South.
At the same time, Russell was also defending segregation against the civil rights movement. Blacks’ growing demand for equal rights, along with the massive postwar migration of rural Southerners to urban areas, laid bare the Southern peach industry’s dependence on a labor system that relied on systemic discrimination.
Peach labor has always been hand labor. Unlike cotton, which was almost entirely mechanized in the Southeast by the 1970s, peaches were too delicate and ripeness too difficult to judge for mechanization to be a viable option. As the rural working class left Southern fields in waves, growers found it increasingly difficult to find cheap and readily available labor.
For a few decades they used dwindling local crews, supplemented by migrants and schoolchildren. In the 1990s they leveraged their political connections once more to move their undocumented Mexican workers onto the federal H-2A guest worker program, which allows some employers to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary agriculture jobs.
Not so peachy
“Evr’ything is peaches down in Georgia,” a New York songwriting trio wrote in 1918. “Paradise is waiting down there for you.” But of course everything was and is not peaches down in Georgia, either figuratively or literally.
There may be plenty of peaches on license plates, but the state makes more money from pine straw, blueberries, deer hunting leases and cabbages. Nonetheless, the Georgia peach teaches us how important it is to tell fuller stories of the food we eat — stories that take into account not just rain patterns and nutritional content but history, culture and political power.
This column was written for The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.