Georgia Fuzz: Weather, Workers, and the World’s Peach Paradise, Part II

by Tom Okie

Part II

Last time I told a story of how fuzz – or peach pubescence – made peaches a good environmental fit for the humid southern climate. But I fear I am over-determining the story of the peach in the South. It wasn’t just environmental adaptation but also social adaptation that made for the success of the fruit. If you want to start a new agriculture, it has to fit with the society as well as the soil. And peaches fit — especially with the labor system that was already in place.

Perishable crops have highly seasonal labor demands. With peaches, you need a little bit of labor during the year for cultivation, pruning, spraying. Then at harvest time — which is maybe 5-6 weeks out of the year — you need a lot of labor, about ten times as much. A farm that employed about 60 hands throughout the year would need to hire between 500 and 700 at harvest time. One of the central problems for a commercial grower, consequently, was how to control workers’ bodies: how to have them on site when they needed them and off site when they didn’t.Events-7In most places, the answer to these questions is what is often called a “migrant stream.” California is the best example of this arrangement, where there’s a relatively tight migratory cycle through a wide range of perishable crops: oranges, strawberries, peaches, plums, almonds, avocados, grapes. The east coast has a version, too, the Atlantic coast migrant stream, which runs from oranges in Florida, through apples in New York, and blueberries in Maine.

Georgia peach growers didn’t have the diversity that California had — it was mostly peaches and cotton. But growers didn’t need to dip into the Atlantic migrant stream until the mid-twentieth century. Instead, they had their own local source of labor: cotton farmers. This system – which, in contrast to a “migrant stream” we might call a “local tide” — worked for decades because the peach harvest happens during a lull in the cotton cycle, in June and July, after you’ve chopped or weeded the cotton and are just waiting for it to ripen in September and October. So in a cotton farming region before mechanization, you have a lot of people at loose ends, and, more to the point, coming to the end of their cash flow, if they had any at all, at the precise moment when you need many, many bodies in the orchards.

In 1912 a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal visited Fort Valley and found that peaches, along with asparagus and watermelons, contributed some five million dollars to the middle Georgia economy in just six weeks, at a time when cash and credit reserves were at their lowest and cotton represented only a potential income.[1] Nick Strickland remembered peach season as the high point, the time that would carry a storekeeper through the year. On Saturdays, his father woke at 7:00 a.m. to open the store, and kept it open till midnight to accommodate the farmers and mostly black hands from the rural areas coming into town in their two-ton trucks. “During peach season, when those people came into town, they had money in their pockets.” And they spent it — on talcum powder, bandanas, glue, brushes, Coca-cola, Pepsi, Nu-grape, chewing gum, tobacco. “Somebody been smokin’ a pack of cigarettes, peach season get here he smokes two packs . . . Everybody looked forward to it.”[2]

And so the peach harvest took on the character of a harvest festival, a rural jamboree, a social as well as economic occasion. Katherine Ripley, who ran a small peach growing operation in the North Carolina Sandhills, described it this way:

They look on the peach season as the big holiday of their year, the next best thing to a revival. It’s different from the routine of farm work. They work in gangs. They eat quantities of soft peaches. The men fight among themselves and make love to the girls. It’s all a frolic to them.[3]

This all depended on the seasonal rhythms of a rural society — or to put it another way, on the lack of other employment options. Once people started leaving the South seeking opportunity — work in industrial centers of one sort or another — the harvest festival didn’t make as much sense.

From the 1940s on, consequently, peach growers had more and more trouble finding labor. Briefly, during World War II, they used German and Italian POWs. After the war, they hired crew bosses, who went to local cities and recruited kids home from school at summer time. They dipped periodically into the Atlantic migrant stream, hiring what one grower described simply as “derelicts,” strung out on drugs, alcoholics, cheated by crew leaders who often doubled as drug dealers and loan sharks.

IMG_1100-1In the 1980s, growers shifted gradually to undocumented Mexican immigrants an. This source was ideal in many respects. The late Oliver Bateman enumerated the advantages in this way: They started just at daylight, while it was still cool. They worked as an orderly unit, systematically going through the rows instead of scattering, “all over hell,” randomly choosing and skipping trees. They were efficient: in one orchard, nine immigrants picked two thousand bushels in the same amount of time it took forty- five local workers. They selected good quality fruit instead of leaving it to the graders to throw out half the pickings because they were too green or bruised. And they did not complain about the heat or the work. The grower concluded: “It didn’t take an idiot to see that [it] was a vast improvement.” As another grower put it, immigrant workers were “the Michael Jordans of farm workers.”[4] And what was Michael Jordan if not skilled and professional? As this comment suggests, peach growers today are quick to acknowledge that, at least in the case of picking Georgia peaches, the agricultural labor is anything but unskilled or casual.

It’s only in these last few years, then, that growers have, in a sense, regained the harvest festival, but it’s by the alchemy of international trade and politics, and it depends upon federal support. There’s a wage differential that, for the moment, works: a low wage in the US is a high wage for rural Mexico, even with all the difficulties of the work. The rural poverty and the seasonal rhythms remain, but they are those of rural Jalisco or Nayarit or Hidalgo rather than the rural South. And the peach harvest again provides a crucial cash influx for a desperate economy, but it’s 2,000 miles away and beyond an increasingly militarized border.

We’re at the peak of Georgia’s peach season now, and many of us will be consuming them in large quantities. As we do, let’s consider the fuzz – not just the environmental peculiarities that made the Georgia peach the Georgia peach, but the political economy that makes commercial production possible. The fruit hasn’t created a “peach paradise” as the horticulturists and boosters hoped, not by a long shot, but for certain people, in certain places, at certain times, it has made life a little more pleasant and beautiful. There may be some truth, after all, in an old Argentine proverb: Si te gusta el durazno, báncate la pelusa.[5]

If you like the peach, put up with the fuzz.

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Tom Okie is an assistant professor of history at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. His book, The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South will appear with Cambridge University Press in 2016.

[1] “Moving Georgia’s Peach Crop Brings Large Midsummer Income.” Wall Street Journal (Jul 6, 1912), 3.

[2] Nick Strickland, interview with the author, 9 July 2009, Fort Valley, Georgia.

[3] Katharine Ball Ripley, Sand in My Shoes (New York: Brewer, Warren & Putnam, 1931), 258.

[4] Oliver Bateman, interview with the author, 29 July 2008; Johnathan Burns, “Field of dreams: Migrants no more, Hispanic farm workers make midstate home,” The Macon Telegraph (14 August 1997), 1B.

[5] I am indebted to Pablo Lepegna for sharing this saying with me.