The Peach Industry
Georgia has been long known as the Peach State and the largest producer of peaches and pecans in the United States is located in Fort Valley. Georgia produces more than 130 million pounds of peaches each year and peaches grown here are arguably the best found anywhere in the world. 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
Georgia has two commercial peach-growing regions. Peach County is the heart of the central region with about 1.6 million peach trees yielding about 100 million bushels every year, or 75 percent of the state's production. The southern region produces about 30 million pounds of peaches annually.
The central region includes 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.
There is a small commercial presence in Brooks and Pierce counties in south Georgia, where new varieties suitable for those areas are improving fruit quality. The new varieties seem to be responsible for a surge in the planting of peaches in this region of the state. Historically, considerable peach production occurred in north Georgia also, but during the 1980s and 1990s acreage declined because of frequent freeze damage and relatively late harvest dates.
As many as 18 peach packing houses lined the streets of Fort Valley in the heyday of the peach industry. Byron, the county’s only other city, located some 12 miles north on the rail line, had as many as 14. One local grower moved his house several thousand yards so he could watch his peaches being loaded into rail cars (that structure, the Troutman Home, currently houses the chamber and Fort Valley’s Main Street offices).
Today there are just two major growing and packing operations here, Lane Southern Orchards and Pearson's Big 6 Farm owned by two families who have lived and worked and farmed here for more than 130 years!
Big 6 Farm
Five generations of the Pearson family have farmed the red Georgia clay in this area for more than 130 years. The Pearson family's 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 online e-commerce business, Pearson Farms.
It all started in 1885 when Moses Winlock (Lockie) Pearson and his wife, Emma, moved to middle Georgia and planted their own family roots and the first peach trees for the Pearson family. They eventually had six sons and six daughters. One of their sons, John, current managing partner Al Pearson's grandfather, started farming on his own, adding more land to the family holdings and planting more peaches.
Lawton, the youngest son of John and Rosa Lee Pearson, and his wife Laurie began to work with the family farm in Zenith and they had three children: Peggy, Ann and Al. As children, the Pearson children all worked in the peach packing shed every summer where lessons in perseverance and tenacity were learned. No matter how tired or how late the hour, peaches must be ready for timely shipping to New York and other points north.
After college, Al joined his father in farming. In 1972, he married Mary McLennan whom he met at the University of Georgia and they also have three children – Mary Katherine, Lawton and Laurie. In 1973 Al began operating the farm as Big 6 Farm, a partnership effort owned by Al and his two sisters, farming together for 35 years. Al and his son Lawton, a recent law school graduate, purchased the business in 2008 and began farming together. Lawton married Lanier Defnall and they now have three young children – Adeline, Cort and Sutton. Al and Lawton also grow a large acreage of pecans.
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.
Lane Southern Orchards
Lane Southern Orchards and Taylor Orchards merged in 2018 to create the largest peach and pecan operation in the United States. The consolidated operation packs peaches under the Lane Southern Orchards label.
Taylor Orchards farms 3,000 acres of peaches and 950 acres of row crops including peanuts and soybeans, and Lane Southern Orchards farms 2,000 acres of peaches and 3,500 acres of pecans. In addition to existing acreage, the company’s aggressive growth plan includes an additional planting in 2018 of 700 acres of new peach production and 1,000 new acres dedicated to pecans, resulting in more than 10,000 acres under cultivation.
Founded in 1908 by John David Duke as Diamond Fruit Farm, Lane Packing Co. farms more than 6,000 acres of peaches and pecans. Located just outside of Fort Valley, the fourth-generation family operation now grows more than 35 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 -- the late Ann Rigdon, Duke Jr., Bobby and Steve -- who, along with their children, remain active in the operation of the company.