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We Put the Peach in Georgia
First grown in China almost 4,000 years ago, peaches have spread from their homeland to the western world via India and Persia where they were first cultivated.
Peaches were later introduced into Europe and Columbus brought peach seeds to the new world on his second and third trips. These seeds eventually found their way to the red clay soil of middle Georgia where they were planted on acres of land which would later become Peach County.
Though peaches were originally planted in St. Augustine, Fla., Franciscan monks introduced them to St. Simons and Cumberland islands along Georgia's coast in 1571. By the mid-1700s peaches and plums were cultivated by the Cherokee Indians. Before the Civil War, increasing numbers of home orchards were planted in Georgia.
Fresh Georgia peaches are available only 16 weeks each year, from mid-May to August. Although Georgia is still called the Peach State, it actually ranks third in United States peach production behind California and South Carolina, though Georgia peaches are arguably the sweetest and tastiest grown anywhere. In 2001, the Georgia peach crop totaled 140 million pounds and brought in $35 million.
Raphael Moses, a planter and Confederate officer from Columbus, was among the first to market peaches within Georgia in 1851 and is credited with being the first to ship and sell peaches successfully outside of the South. His method of shipping peaches in champagne baskets, rather than in pulverized charcoal, helped to preserve the flavor of the fruit and contributed to his success.
Considerable expansion of peach acreage occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, resulting in an all-time high production of almost eight million bushels by 1928. Since then production has decreased to about 2.6 million bushels annually.
Georgia enjoys important production and marketing advantages, primarily its proximity to eastern markets and favorable prices because of early harvests and high-quality fruit production.
Nearly all peaches grown in Georgia are sold in the wholesale fresh market, with a small percentage sold at roadside markets. There is no significant processing of peaches in Georgia.
The first Georgia peaches were shipped to the New York market between 1858 and 1860. They were transported by wagon to Augusta, then by shallow-draft boat to Savannah, and finally by steamship to New York. Georgia earned its "Peach State" designation during the three decades following the Civil War.
Peach expansion in acreage and production was fueled by several factors. The abolition of slavery forced farmers to search for alternatives to the traditional labor-intensive cotton crop. Peaches, in particular, benefited from this transition.
The Georgia State Horticultural Society, founded near Augusta in 1876, promoted the introduction and testing of many fruit varieties and their distribution throughout the state while under the leadership of Prosper J.A. Berckmans, a nurseryman and pomologist. The old Fruitlands Nursery is now the site of the Augusta National Golf Club, home to the annual Masters Tournament.
Berckmans became famous for introducing new fruit varieties that were more suitable for growing in southern climates. He developed or improved many types of peaches and eventually became known as the "Father of Peach Culture" across the South. Among his varieties were the South Chinese (or Honey) peach and the Chinese Cling. From the Chinese Cling, Prosper eventually bred the Elberta, Belle and Thurber peaches, which became Georgia's primary commercial varieties. His Thurber peach was the leading variety until it was replaced by the Elberta, which was later improved by Samuel Rumph.
Rumph, a Marshallville peach grower, perfected the new peach variety in 1870, which he named for his wife, Elberta. This yellow-fleshed peach was of superior quality and shipped better than previous varieties. Elberta remained the leading peach in Georgia until 1960, but newer varieties have since replaced the Elberta in commercial use. Although the Elberta remains the most famous peach name, Georgia now produces more than 40 commercial varieties ... and the Elberta is not one of them.
Rumph also pioneered improvements in rail transportation and the development of the refrigerated rail car which allowed rapid shipments to northern markets on a large scale.
Georgia's peach industry is concentrated in Peach, Crawford, Taylor and Macon counties along the fall line, the transition zone between Georgia's Piedmont and Coastal Plain. This area is far enough north to receive sufficient winter chilling, but far enough south to avoid late frosts and guarantee early harvest dates. The early harvest allows premium prices for the crop. Additionally, the sandy loam soils of the fall line are more favorable to peach production than the Piedmont's heavy clays or the Coastal Plain's sands.
The Pearson family has been growing peaches and pecans for more than 100 years on the same land worked by grandparents of current managing partner Al Pearson.
Big 6 Farm is comprised of 1,500 acres of peaches and 2,000 acres of pecans. This family farm produces a bounty of fruit and nuts with the finest being used in Mary Pearson's mail order business, Pearson Farms.
Four generations of Pearsons have farmed the red clay of Peach and Crawford Counties, growing peaches, pecans, asparagus, timber, cotton, corn and other crops. Moses Winlock Pearson and his wife Cornelia moved to this area a little more than 100 years ago and planted the first peach trees for the Pearson family. There were six sons and six daughters. One son, Al Pearson's grandfather John, started farming on his own, adding more land to the family holdings and planting more peaches.
Eventually, Lawton, the youngest son of John and Rosa Lee Pearson, and his wife Laurie began to work with the family farm in Zenith. Under Lawton's leadership, the company continued to grow and prosper. The fourth generation started working in the packing shed and on the roadside selling peaches in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Big 6 Farm has met the food safety standards and Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) guidelines set by the USDA and the FDA. Big 6 has also met the audit standards established under the Georgia GP Food Safety Programs. It is one of only three farms in Georgia to earn this designation and the only peach and pecan farm.
Visit the Pearson Farm/Big 6 website for more information.
Lane Southern Orchards
Founded in 1908 by John David Duke as Diamond Fruit Farm, Lane Packing Co. farms more than 2,500 acres of peach trees and 2,000 acres of pecans. Located just outside of Fort Valley, the fourth generation family operation now grows more than 30 varieties of peaches.
John David Duke built his first peach packing house in 1942. J.D, Duke Packing Co. was taken over by his son-in-law David O. Lane, and grandson, Duke Lane, Sr. in 1950 and the packing shed became known as Lane Packing Co.
Following the retirement of his father, Duke Lane Sr. became sole owner and, until 1975, continued to pack peaches at the same location his grandfather built in 1942.
In 1976, Duke Lane Sr. formed a partnership with the Russell Pearson family. Together they built a more modern packing house and named the company Pearson & Lane. This partnership remained in place until 1989. After the 1989 season, the Lane family began construction of a new packing house on the family farm. This facility is one of the most modern of its kind and was ready just in time for the 1990 crop.
With the new packing house built, Duke Lane Sr. turned the business over to his four children -- Duke Jr., Bobby, Anne and Steve -- who continue to run it today.
Visit the Lane Packing Co. website for more information.
(Information for this article taken from histories provided by the Lane family and Al Pearson as well as information from an article written by Kathryn C. Taylor at the University of Georgia.)