The Iconic Georgia Peach
As I enjoy a peach from Jones Orchard in Millington, Tenn., I eat it with a greater understanding of the history of producing this fruit and its adaption as a southern icon. William Thomas Okie is Assistant Professor of History Education at Kennesaw State University. Okie’s book, The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South is the story of the Georgia peach and the mythology that has grown up around it.
In an interview with “The Author’s Corner,” Okie said: “The Georgia Peach examines the interplay of the biological and cultural features of a particular crop (especially the fruit’s perishability and popularity) with the economic and social features of a particular place (especially the cotton economy and the impoverished labor force on which that economy depended).
“I’m trained in environmental history, and so I’m fascinated with the ways we humans deal with the plants, animals, weather, and dirt we usually call ‘nature.’ I grew up near the center of the Georgia peach industry, and my father was a stone fruit breeder for the USDA experiment station in Byron, Georgia. I guess you could say that the peach didn’t fall far from the tree.” (pun intended)
The peach, scientific name Prunus persica, is a deciduous tree native to northwest China. Asian peaches had been brought to the U.S. in the 17th century. In the 1850s, horticulturist Henry Lyons is credited for being the first to grow the Chinese Cling peach on American soil.
Horticulturists had a vision to transform the southern landscape, which cotton farming had “nearly worn out one of the prettiest sand most pleasant countries in the world…Probably no soil has ever produced more wealth in so short a time, nor has been more rapidly wasted of its fertility.” They promoted agricultural reform – away from a cotton-based economy that wore out the soil and depended on enslaved labor – to “an enlightened system of agriculture” that would convert the southern landscape to one of beauty, increase soil fertility, and move away from the system of slavery. But for the horticultural revolution to take shape in the South, the economic system would have to change.
In 1856, a pair of Belgian nurserymen, Louis and Prosper Berckmans, purchased orchard land in Augusta, Georgia that would come to be known as Fruitland. They sought to “make the South’s landscapes more lovely, its farms more diverse, its people more prosperous, and its society more settled.” But their work was devoted to the pear, not the peach.
As pears did not succeed very well in the South, southern horticulturists turned to Prunus persica. Georgia native Samuel Henry Rumph bred the South’s most famous peach, named Elberta after his first wife. The Elberta had a firm flesh that separated easily from the pit – a freestone. A clinging stone was a recessive trait and could not produce freestones without cross-pollination. So Rumph continued developing varieties of freestone peaches, many progeny of the Chinese Cling.
It was John Howard Hale, whom Okie describes as “a Connecticut Yankee in King Cotton’s Court,” who turned southern agriculture more aggressively commercial. Hale was part of the New South: a Yankee entrepreneur, growing a high value crop with the labor of people who were, because of their skin color and the southern political system, readily available. Hale learned how to harness the energy of a marginalized class.
Perishable crops like peaches are among the most delicate of commercial fruits and must be picked by hand. Their production still demanded an extensive and nearly year-round circuit for migrant workers with its preference for some weaker racial/ethnic group, creating a succession of “ethnic reserve armies.”
The mechanization of southern cotton production after World War II and the development of pesticides sprayed on crops were two other factors transforming southern agriculture.
The Civil Rights Movement brought awareness to the nation of the economic inequality and exploitation of labor in a system dependent on it. In addition, environmental instability defined the fortunes of the Georgia peach in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Okie writes: “There is a coda to the history of agriculture and civil rights in the peach orchards of middle Georgia.” Woolfolk Chemical occupied an eighteen-acre site on the edge of Fort Valley, Georgia where for seventy years it had quietly produced pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer for the peach industry – and it had thoroughly contaminated over thirty acres in the mostly black neighborhood surrounding it. In the 1980s and 1990s, Fort Valley’s African American community led a second civil rights movement centered on environmental inequality.
In conclusion, Okie advises: “Go to Fort Valley, [county seat of Peach County]…eat cobbler made from peaches bred by my father and grown on a rootstock discovered by a team of government scientists, picked and packed by Mexican migrants who are ‘guests’ of their employers and of the United States. Do so at a site created by the peach industry’s demand for chemical solutions to their environmental problems...”
This summer I have enjoyed Julie’s homemade peach cobbler at The Silver Caboose in Collierville, Tennessee, made from fresh peaches from Pontotoc, Mississippi.
Danovich, Tove. NPR “The Salt.” “The Un-Pretty History of Georgia’s Iconic Peach.” http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/07/21/537926947/the-un-pretty-history-of-georgias-iconic-peach
Okie, William Thomas. 2016. “How the Big Apple Made the Georgia Peach. Blog 1584. Cambridge University Press. http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2016/12/just-how-southern-are-southern-peaches/
The Author’s Corner with William Thomas Okie. Jan. 2017. https://thewayofimprovement.com/2017/01/30/the-authors-corner-with-william-thomas-okie/
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