The 2023 Georgia peach harvest is looking bad, although the details are sketchy. By some accounts, it’s the worst since 1955. Or maybe since 2017. There are estimates that a mild winter and late spring frost have cost Georgia growers 50% of their crop. Or perhaps 60%, or 85% to 95%. Consumers, say the growers, should expect less fruit, though what’s produced may be “fantastic and huge and sweet.” And they should expect to pay quite a bit more.
As ominous as this may sound, the unpredictability of Georgia’s peach harvest has been predictable since the industry’s earliest days. So has public hand-wringing about it. It can be hard to say what a “normal” year is. In 1909, growers produced just over 826,000 bushels. In 1919, it was up to 3.5 million, then 4.4 million in 1924, then back down to 1 million in 1929.
There may be plenty of peaches on Georgia license plates, but according to the University of Georgia’s 2021 Georgia Farm Gate Value Report, the state makes more money from pine straw, blueberries and deer-hunting leases. It has 1.21 million acres planted with cotton, compared with 11,582 acres of peach orchards. Georgia’s annual production of broiler chickens is worth almost 50 times as much as its peaches.
Why do Georgia peaches loom so large when they account for only 0.58% of the state’s agricultural economy, and Georgia produces only between 3% and 5% of the U.S. peach crop? The answer is that the Georgia peach is a cultural icon as well as an agricultural commodity. As I have documented, its story tells us much about the relationship between environmental uncertainty and commercial agriculture.
Easy to grow, hard to protect
Peaches (Prunus persica) were introduced to North America by Spanish monks around St. Augustine, Florida, 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.
Observing that peaches in the Carolinas germinated easily and fruited heavily, English explorer and naturalist John Lawson wrote in 1700 that “they make our Land a Wilderness of Peach-Trees.” Even today, feral Prunus persica is surprisingly common, appearing along roadsides and fence rows, in suburban backyards and old fields throughout the Southeast and beyond.
Yet for such a hardy fruit, the commercial crop can seem remarkably fragile. This year’s heavy loss is unusual, but 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.
The Southern environment can seem unfriendly to the fruit in other ways, too. In the 1890s many smaller growers struggled to afford expensive and elaborate controls to combat pests such as San Jose scale and plum curculio.
In the early 1900s, large quantities of fruit were condemned and discarded when market inspectors found entire car lots infected with brown rot, a fungal disease that can devastate stone fruit crops. In the 1960s, the commercial peach industry in Georgia and South Carolina nearly ground to a halt because of a syndrome known as peach tree short life, which caused trees to suddenly wither and die in their first year or two of bearing fruit.
In short, growing Prunus persica 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 past 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. A few distilled the fruit into brandy; many ran their half-wild hogs in the orchards to forage on fallen fruit. Some slave owners used the peach harvest as a kind of festival for their chattel, and runaways provisioned their secret journeys in untended orchards.
In the 1850s, in a determined effort to create a fruit industry for the Southeast, horticulturists began a selective breeding campaign for peaches and other fruits, including wine grapes, pears, apples and gooseberries. Its most famous yield was the Elberta peach.
Introduced by Samuel Henry Rumph in the 1870s, the Elberta became one of the most successful fruit varieties of all time. Other fruits flourished for brief periods, but southern peaches boomed: the number of trees increased more than fivefold between 1889 and 1924.
Increasingly, growers and boosters near the heart of the industry in Fort Valley, Georgia, sought to tell “the story” of the Georgia peach. They did so in peach blossom festivals from 1922 to 1926 – annual events that dramatized the prosperity of the peach belt. Each festival featured a parade of floats, speeches by governors and members of Congress, a massive barbecue and an elaborate pageant directed by a professional dramatist and sometimes involving up to one-fourth of the town’s population.
Festivalgoers came from all across the United States, with attendance reportedly reaching 20,000 or more – a remarkable feat for a town of roughly 4,000 people. In 1924 the queen of the festival wore a US$32,000 pearl-encrusted gown belonging to silent film star Mary Pickford. In 1925, as documented by National Geographic, the pageant included a live camel.
The pageants varied from year to year but in general told a story of the peach, personified as a young maiden and searching the world for a husband and a home: from China, to Persia, to Spain, to Mexico, and finally to Georgia, her true and eternal home. The peach, these productions insisted, belonged to Georgia. More specifically, it belonged to Fort Valley, which was in the midst of a campaign to be designated as the seat of a new, progressive “Peach County.”
That campaign was surprisingly bitter, but Fort Valley got its county – the 161st and last county in Georgia – and, through the festivals, helped to consolidate the iconography of the Georgia peach. The story they 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
As the 20th century wore on, it became increasingly hard for peach growers to ignore politics and labor. That was particularly clear in the 1950s and 1960s, when growers successfully lobbied for a new peach laboratory in Byron, Georgia, to help combat peach tree short life.
Their chief ally was U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr., one of the most powerful members of Congress in the 20th century and, at the time, chair of the Subcommittee on Agricultural Appropriations. The growers claimed that an expansion of federal research would shore up the peach industry; provide new crops for the South – jujube, pomegranate and persimmons, to name a few; 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 the Senate, and – after what he later described as the most difficult negotiations of his 30-year career – through the House as well. 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 engaged in a passionate and futile defense of segregation against the African American civil rights movement. African Americans’ 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 – and for the foreseeable future will remain – 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, first in the 1910s and ‘20s and again in the 1940s and ’50s, 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.
Not so peachy
Climate and weather clearly play important roles in peach production. But the more interesting story is not just about the changing climate, but how growers of specialty crops like peaches have navigated that unpredictability, with help from government programs like H-2A and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.
At times, producers have actually welcomed that unpredictability. Good harvest years can produce market gluts that make it hard to turn a profit. A bad harvest year generally can be a good financial year for individual growers because they can charge more for whatever peaches they produce.
Clement and Katharine Ball Ripley, moderately well-known authors in the 1930s, tried peach growing in North Carolina in the 1920s. In a memoir about their experience, “Sand in My Shoes,” Katharine reflected that although they had been unsuccessful as farmers, they had learned “to gamble, the pleasantist life in the world.”
Variable weather and environmental conditions make the Georgia peach possible. They also threaten its existence. But the Georgia peach also teaches us how important it is that we learn 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 is an updated version of an article originally published July 20, 2017.
Disclosure statement: William Thomas Okie has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Social Sciences Research Council. His father W. R. Okie III was a USDA peach breeder from 1980 to 2011.