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

by Tom Okie

Part I.

Nick Strickland lives in a double wide trailer on the outskirts of Fort Valley, Georgia. It’s a hot June day, and he’s wearing shorts, white socks, and white tennis shoes. An air conditioner window unit comes on and off periodically during our 90 minute conversation. It is his day off.

Mr. Strickland is semi-retired — as anyone pushing eighty years probably ought to be — but he still works long days for Lane Packing Company, which runs a roadside peach packing shed and agritourism complex a few miles down the road. He’s one of two farm tour drivers at Lane’s, and he spends these working hours driving curious visitors through the peach and pecan orchards and labor camps owned by the Lane family. This is not the first time he’s worked for Duke Lane; as a kid, he worked in the packing shed labeling crates; when he was older, he sold culled peaches to folks who wanted to can or ferment them. Later, he took over his father’s hardware store in downtown Fort Valley.

Mr. Strickland is trying to explain to me what peach season was like in Fort Valley when he was coming up in the 1930s and 1940s, when he comes to this:

It affected talcum powder. Would you have thought peaches would affect talcum powder? Well I’m goin’ to tell you how it does. Before we started washing the peaches, we’d bring peaches in from the field, you know, just pick ‘em, put ‘em in the box, bring ‘em in, brush ‘em, brush the fuzz off, damn fuzz goes everywhere, gets on your neck, you start scratchin’, you start .. all of a sudden, well, some of the girls found out — this is 60 years ago, 70 — they put a little talcum powder up there: and [it’s] protection. I said all along, talcum powder people owed the peach growers for growing peaches, ‘cause it just made the talcum powder business.[1]

Yes – talcum powder. In a certain sense, of course, this is sheer hyperbole. Talcum powder — magnesium hydroxyl silicate — is used for an array of skin issues such as razor burn or diaper rash, and clearly had an economic life of its own outside the Georgia peach belt.

But let’s just run with the hyperbole for a moment and say that talcum powder was a response to a biological characteristic of the peach, the presence of fuzz. Talcum powder mediated the relationship between human flesh and peach fuzz; it made the non-human world just a bit more comfortable for the people who dusted it onto the napes of their necks.

In a similar way, we might say that the peach put on fuzz to make its own passage through the world more comfortable. Fuzz came between the fruit’s flesh and the organisms that surrounded it: insects and their larvae, fungi and their spores, and human hands that hurried it to market

Much — to paraphrase William Carlos Williams — much depended on peach fuzz.

Peach fuzz, or to use the scientific term — and I am not making this up — “peach pubescence,” is composed of tiny hairs. Each of these hairs is an unusually shaped epidermal cell: The cylinder gets narrower toward the base, which means it’s a weak point when handled.[2]

Image from M.J. Dorsey and J.S. Potter, “A Study of the Structure of the Skin and Pubescence of the Peach in Relation to Brushing,” University of Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 385 (November 1932), 407-424
Image from M.J. Dorsey and J.S. Potter, “A Study of the Structure of the Skin and Pubescence of the Peach in Relation to Brushing,” University of Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 385 (November 1932), 407-424

As it turns out, the fuzz was very important. In the nineteenth century, horticulturists believed they could transform the South, liberate it from cotton and make it a place of fragrant orchards. But it wasn’t just peaches they had in mind. Apples, plums, strawberries, asparagus, figs, mulberries, apricots, cherries, quinces, persimmons. The leader of these horticulturists, a Belgian nobleman named Prosper Berckmans, devoted one of his orchard notebooks entirely to gooseberries. And he dearly hoped that the South would support pear and wine grape industries. Other horticulturists, to show their faith, gave their homes names like Pearmont and Vineland.

But despite the best efforts of the horticulturists, only peaches thrived in the South. In part the peach’s triumph stemmed from the difficulty of the southern environment: high humidity, warm winters, irregular rainfall, unpredictable springtime temperatures, all of which rolled out the welcome mat to pests and made trees more vulnerable to these pests. Other horticultural crops succeeded momentarily – apples in northern Georgia in the early twentieth century, wild goose plums in the cotton belt in the late nineteenth – but only peaches remained commercially viable for long.

The fuzz was part of what made the fruit a good environmental fit for the south. It made it harder, for example, for the plum curculio to lay its eggs in the fruit, and it makes it more difficult for fungi such as brown rot to get a foothold in the tender skin. Nectarines, are essentially identical to peaches save the fuzz, but have never been grown commercially in the southeast because they have too many “skin problems.”

And yet peach pubescence was also a handicap for the fruit. As a visitor put it to the most famous American plant breeder in the early twentieth century, Luther Burbank:

You’ve taken the thorns off of the blackberry bush and the spines from a cactus, why can’t you take the fuzz off a peach? Most of us don’t deal much with blackberry briers or with cactuses, spiny or otherwise; but we all eat peaches, and a good many of us would about as willingly bite into a spiny cactus as a fuzzy peach.”[3]

Fuzz dulled the surface of the skin, concealing an otherwise beautiful fruit. Add to this the sulphur — which growers began spraying on the fruit to protect it from brown rot late in the season — and the fuzz plus this fungicide residue made for a rather unattractive product.

So scientists and growers attacked this problem on two fronts. First, horticulturists bred the fruit for less fuzz and more red color and other desirable characteristics. Selecting the fruit for only certain kinds of characteristics: sugar content, red color, thick skin, firm flesh — made the fruit more susceptible to pests. Which was fine because cheap and effective broad spectrum organophosphate pesticides dealt with the problems of insect pests pretty handily. For a while.

Growers, meanwhile, took to defuzzing the fruit: installing in their packing sheds brushing machines that made the fruit shine in the market. Brushing also removed some of the defenses of the fruit against brown rot, but at least in the 1930s growers felt that the increased sales made up for the loss of some fruit. And brushing also make the packing shed a place where, as Nick Strickland told us, “the damn fuzz goes everywhere . . .” An irritating itch akin to fiberglass insulation. And so workers clad themselves in bandanas, and dusted their necks with talcum powder.

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

[2] M.J. Dorsey and J.S. Potter, “A Study of the Structure of the Skin and Pubescence of the Peach in Relation to Brushing,” University of Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 385 (November 1932), 408.

[3] Luther Burbank, “Fuzzy Peaches and Smooth Skinned Nectarines,” in Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application (New York: Luther Burbank Press, 1914), 141.