The Story of How Georgia Claimed the Peach
Story by Tom Okie & Illustrations by Avram Dumitrescu
As a Georgian writing about peaches for a Charleston-based magazine, I should start by acknowledging the obvious: The Peach State doesn’t have all that many peaches. As of the last agricultural census in 2012, Georgia had 12,318 acres of peach trees; South Carolina had 16,274, not quite 10 and 13 percent, respectively, of the nation’s total acreage, and well below California’s 51,948 acres, about 40 percent of U.S. total acreage. Last year, Georgia’s 39,000 tons paled next to South Carolina’s 69,000, both of which were dwarfed by California’s 559,000 tons. (Even if you focus only on California’s fresh-market production, the state produced 253,000 tons, well over twice the combined production of South Carolina and Georgia.) Comedian (and South Carolinian) Stephen Colbert describes National Peach Month as “thirty days of simmering resentment because of the fraud perpetrated by the state of Georgia.”
I’m not here to set the record straight, nor to defend Georgia as the true Peach State. I may be a Georgian, but I’m also a historian, which means my job is to complicate, to contextualize, to shade the bright glaring myths of the American past with the subtler tones of nuance. What explains the Georgia peach is history, though perhaps not the sort of history you’d expect. It’s not just that Georgians used to grow a lot of peaches, like Maryland used to export a lot of terrapins, or like Colorado used to be home to lots of bison. It’s that peaches emerged as a commercial crop at a particular historical moment. It’s a story, in other words, about timing.
Comedian (and South Carolinian) Stephen Colbert describes National Peach Month as “thirty days of simmering resentment because of the fraud perpetrated by the state of Georgia.”
Peaches are not native to Georgia. Nor, despite the scientific name Prunus persica, do they come from Persia. Though, to be fair to the Europeans who gave the fruit its Latin moniker, peaches did come to Europe via Persia. Still, the “Chinese peach” is the world’s oldest and most dominant. There are ancient peach trees in China, perhaps as many as 1,000 years old (the average American tree is less than thirty years old), and the Chinese currently grow about three million acres of the fruit, almost two-thirds of the world’s total production. Peaches didn’t arrive in North America until the sixteenth century, when Spanish friars planted pits around their New World missions. It took only a few decades, however, for the fruit to be thoroughly naturalized.
Jamestown settlers found peaches thriving on the Atlantic coast.
Englishman John Lawson praised the ease with which English settlers in Carolina could grow what he called “Indian peaches.” He saw peaches fed to hogs, dried and pressed into cakes, baked into loaves, squeezed into a “quiddony,” or paste, barbecued over a fire, stewed in a pot, and fermented into vinegar.
So we could, perhaps, speak of “the Carolina peach,” “the Chinese peach,” or the “Indian peach.” Instead, we have “the Georgia peach.” Why? To make a very long story absurdly short and ridiculously simple, the Georgia peach emerged in the half century between the Civil War and World War I for three reasons.
Golden era of agricultural experimentation, yielding a staggering cornucopia of biological and culinary diversity. Plant explorer Robert Fortune discovers a large, yellow-fleshed peach from the region around Shanghai and sent it to Charles Downing of New York, who sent a seedling to an amateur horticulturist in Columbia, South Carolina, who in turn shared it with a Macon, Georgia, banker. This “Chinese Cling” peach, as they called it, became the genetic foundation of the modern commercial peach industry. Plant scientists today call it the “second wave of peach introduction.”
Samuel Henry Rumph planted some Chinese Cling in his experimental orchard along with a number of other varieties. A few years later, Rumph discovered a chance seedling that produced large, firm, yellow freestone fruit. He christened the variety “Elberta,” after his wife, and it went on to become one of the most dominant fruit varieties of all time.
While working for the USDA’s Agricultural Census, in a special survey of the nation’s horticultural resources, Howard Hale, of South Glastonbury, Connecticut, had a firsthand look at some of the most famous “garden spots” in American history: California oranges and roses, Washington apples, Idaho potatoes. But little Fort Valley, Georgia, really got him worked up: “I just lost my head when I got in that section of Georgia,” he said later. He pulled together financing to buy up a thousand acres, then another thousand, creating a peach farm that was one of the largest in the world.
“Peach is now queen in Georgia” … “With her coming, burdens of adversity vanish like mists before the rising sun.”
– John T. Boifeuillet, Atlanta Constitution
“Peach is now queen in Georgia.”
1910 – 1930
A Wall Street Journal reporter found in 1912 that the peach industry (along with watermelon and asparagus) contributed close to five million dollars to the middle Georgia economy in just six weeks. For Nick Strickland, whose father owned a hardware store in Fort Valley, it seemed that the peach harvest sustained the dry-goods economy of the entire town: “During peach season, when those people came into town, they had money in their pockets…they spent every damn cent of it,” Strickland remembered in 2009. “Someone been smokin’ a pack of cigarettes,” Strickland explained, “peach season get here, he smokes two packs.”
1950 – Today
As long as Southern cotton production was labor intensive—and in most places, workers continued to harvest cotton by hand into the 1950s—peach growers had a reliable source of workers. When that labor source began to dry up in the latter half of the twentieth century, either because workers had better opportunities in cities or because they were no longer willing to do field labor for white overseers, growers began to cast about for other sources of cheap labor: schoolchildren, German and Italian POWs during World War II, West Indian migrants, and most recently, Mexican guest workers under the federal H2A program. A lot of the rhetoric surrounding the peach suggests that Prunus persica just naturally grows in the South. That’s true, to an extent. But the fruit is not really more suited to the South than anywhere else in the temperate world.
“Peaches belong to Georgia only because peaches belong to time.”
Talk peaches with folks from other places, and you’ll find those who defend Palisade peaches from Colorado, or Great Lakes peaches from Michigan, or honey nectar peaches from Shanghai. No, the Georgia peach was made—by the horticulturists who studied and bred it, by the marketers who sought and sold it, by the workers who plucked and packed it. It was a creation, in short, of history. And this history is worth remembering the next time someone calls the Georgia peach a fraud, or defends the Georgia peach as the only genuine article. Peaches belong to Georgia only because peaches belong to time.