The World

How the Peach Came to Georgia

Science, globalization, race, and the tangled history of a famous fruit.

A peach is seen on a map of Georgia.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Long before Timothée Chalamet lusted over a peach in Call Me by Your Name; before the peach emoji, with its distinctive cleft, became a universal symbol for well-endowed buttocks; and before Chick-fil-A introduced its seasonal peach milkshake in 2009 (still its best shake, hands down), the peach inspired a far more provincial image. The peach was Georgia. From Macon to Valdosta, any child on the road to Florida could look out the window and spot the stone fruit everywhere: plastered on street signs and license plates, sculpted into water towers, and sold on roadside stands. In his song “Neon” from the 2001 album Room for Squares, John Mayer softly crooned, “Tonight she’s out to lose herself/ And find a high on Peachtree Street,” a main boulevard of Atlanta. When Georgians go to the polls on Tuesday to decide the fate of the U.S. Senate, the peach will adorn our “I Voted” stickers. Atlanta’s “Peach Drop” rivals the Big Apple’s ball drop on New Year’s Eve. Next to Coca-Cola and trap music, the Georgia Peach may be one of the Southern state’s enduring cultural exports.

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The carnival of peach imagery may seem a bit overkill, even puzzling considering the fruit’s miniscule role in Georgia agriculture. Peaches account for less than 1 percent of the state’s agrarian economy. Even just among fruits and tree nuts, peaches only made up 7.9 percent of Georgia’s 2018 farm-gate value, behind blueberries and pecans. On the Georgia landscape, the 8,500 acres of peach orchards as of 2019 are utterly dwarfed by 1.38 million acres of cotton, 660,000 acres of peanuts, and 129,000 acres of pecans. California, with its dry, sun-drenched valleys, produces the vast majority of U.S. peaches, followed by South Carolina. Washington, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey compete with Georgia for third place each year. So why are we the Peach State?

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The fruit’s journey to the state was remarkably circuitous. Like its plum and apricot cousins in the prunus family, the peach carries a hard seed husk—its “stone”—beneath the fuzzy skin and flesh. These wrinkled pits are time capsules, allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the fruit’s spread in human society. The oldest peach stones on record were unearthed in the remnants of Neolithic villages (6000–5000 B.C.) along the lower Yangtze River valley, placing the fruit’s ancestral origins in eastern China. The peach occupies a sacred, almost magical place in Chinese mythology. In Tao Qian’s fable “Peach Blossom Spring,” written around 421 A.D., a fisherman stumbles upon a mystical grove of blossoming peach trees, which guard an ethereal land of abundance. Later, the peach traveled West, following the Silk Road. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.) called them “Persian apples” or persicum malum since, from his perspective, Persia was their most immediate source. In Latin persicum became persica, pessica, the Old French pesche, the Old English peche and peoche, and finally peach. (Its scientific name, prunus persica, still retains the antique nomenclature.)

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Fast forward to the 16th century. Spanish conquistadors sailed the Atlantic in the name of gold, glory, and God. Peaches made their inadvertent oceanic voyage to the Americas in what environmental historian Alfred Crosby famously called the Columbian Exchange. The basic story is well known: Europeans got tomatoes and cocoa beans while Native Americans got, well, infectious disease and colonialism. But they also got peaches. As historian Tom Okie notes, Jesuit friars and Franciscan monks brought the fruit along with their civilizing agenda. By 1571, missionaries had planted peach trees in St. Augustine, St. Simons, and Cumberland Island. The Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole tribes, for their part, adopted the peach with evident enthusiasm. The fruit was barbecued, stewed, and dried; its bark, leaves, and pits treated bodily ailments. Peaches became so widespread that explorer John Lawson, in his 1709 A New Voyage to Carolina, mistakenly concluded this “Spontaneous Fruit of America” was “growing amongst them, before any Europeans came.” By selecting the best fruit to replant, Native Americans over time enriched the peach’s genetic heritage. So much so that naturalist John Banister observed, “the Indians [in Virginia] have, and ever had greater variety, and finer sorts of them than we.” Shortly before the Trail of Tears, William Bartram documented sizable peach orchards in the Cherokee and Creek lands of Appalachia and the Georgia piedmont.

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But despite its popularity among Native Americans, the peach remained marginal in white, Southern agriculture before the Civil War. Like weeds, the fruit grew feral along fences and roadsides—“a Wilderness of Peach-Trees,” Lawson exclaimed. Peaches occasionally found their way into brandy, hog forage, or the occasional cobbler, but cotton, tobacco, rice, corn and indigo were the real game. As a Southern aristocratic class emerged, the plantation economy required the indentured servitude of landless whites and then increasingly, the exploitation of enslaved Black labor. That didn’t stop Charles Ball from pocketing the “fine ripe fruit” during his escape from a plantation in Morgan County, Georgia, and chugging a dram of peach brandy on the road North to freedom. “I do not feel that I committed any wrong, against either God or man,” Ball insisted. His reply underscores the contested symbolism of the peach fated to define Georgia. For the planter class, the peach was a private asset, used to fatten the hogs that feed the slaves who pick the cotton that make money. Yet for fugitives like Charles Ball, “the South’s orchards were part of the landscape of freedom,” unbound by private ownership, like the air we breathe. In the foliage, peaches glinted “little vessels of comfort and joy in the midst of an otherwise bleak landscape” as Okie, author of The Georgia Peach, poetically describes.

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Then, the South rebelled. In 1864 Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman burned Georgia to the ground on his March to the Sea. Call it a cleansing fire; some trees like sequoias and redwoods need some heat to germinate and establish themselves. (Peach trees don’t do that, but permit me the metaphor.) The social order of slavery momentarily collapsed, and cotton’s noble image shattered. What’s more, by that time, intensive monocropping had exhausted the soil. As the Homestead Acts opened the Western frontier to settlement, Southern farmers left their barren, eroded fields for greener pastures. “We are awfully bad off up here,” John Trott of Troup County, Georgia, reported in an 1851 volume of the journal Soils of the South, “having nearly worn out one of the prettiest and most pleasant counties in the world.” The land was scarred by “waving broomsedge … barren hillsides … and terrible gullies.” Visit Providence Canyon in Stewart County, with its deep gashes in the Georgia Red Clay, and you’ll appreciate the erosive legacy of cotton monoculture.

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So, what do you do when your soil is trash, your slaves are free, and everyone thinks your system of agriculture is savage? Well, retreat to horticulture. It’s a gentleman’s pursuit. Framed between the excesses of the corrupt city and the primitive wild, gardening was admired. As historian Richard Hofstadter describes in Age of Reform, the cultivation of gardens and orchards was a core dimension of the Founding Fathers’ romantic vision for the young nation. Grapes, French pears, and wheat were the markers of Western refinement. Tobacco and cotton, by contrast, represented the crudities of the plantation. For instance, in a 1784 letter to his old comrade the Marquis de LaFayette, George Washington expressed his wish for retirement, that “I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shadow of my own Vine and my own Fig-tree.” Thomas Jefferson cultivated the “choicest kinds” of peaches at Monticello in his own effort to embody the yeoman republic.

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Over time, horticulture professionalized. Novel cultivars were catalyzing fruit industries across America: the seedless Washington navel orange, the Bartlett pear, Kolb’s Gem watermelon. In 1845, another branch of the Georgia Peach ancestral tree came to the U.S. from China. Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune, scouting China for the British Empire, shipped two saplings of the famous Shanghai peach across the Pacific Ocean, which eventually arrived, through obscure circumstances, to Columbia, South Carolina. This variety became what’s called Chinese Cling, and with its stateside debut, commercial peach production in the South began.

Although the South initially struggled to develop a diversified economy to support horticulture, amateur Georgians did organize the Southern Central Agricultural Society in 1846 and the Georgia Pomological Society in 1856. In 1857, minor Belgian aristocrats Prosper and Louis Berkcmans set sail from Antwerp and eventually settled in Augusta, Georgia, where they built Fruitland Nurseries into an international peach empire. The immigrant Berckmanses, along with genteel entrepreneurs like Samuel Rumph, selectively bred natural and imported peaches into the self-pollinating Elberta cultivar, Georgia’s best-known variety. As fecund trees with sweet, firm-fleshed fruit, Elbertas had many advantages. You could pick the fruits green and pack a truck or train car without bruising them. Chinese Cling, meanwhile, evoked the “exotic” far East, a connotation that resonated with the Northern consumer markets in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

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Southern exporters, with the aid of Northern capital, reached these cities in the 1880s and ’90s through the expansion of railroad and refrigeration. Fortunate for middle Georgia, the Fort Valley Plateau lay in a Goldilocks zone, far enough north to guarantee the chill hours peaches need to ripen but far enough south that the region’s peaches ripened earlier than their New England and mid-Atlantic competitors. As a result, Fort Valley peaches could arrive to New York months before Delaware and Connecticut peaches could. Yankee investors like J.H. Hale flocked to Georgia in droves, convinced that “land was cheap, and good Negro labor abundant.”

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As Okie explains, horticulturalists consciously positioned the peach to redeem the South’s post-plantation image. Romanticized and transfigured, the Georgia Peach became the “new crop for the new south,” destined to dethrone King Cotton. In the postbellum age, small-scale orchards were “the great solicitude” to the planter, as Prosper Berckmans wrote in 1876. Georgia’s commercial peach industry, in its heyday of 1870–1930, sponsored fairs, ads, and exhibitions aimed to lure Northern capital and intrigue the urban consumer. The juicy image lingered, long after the sector’s decline.

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The peach also reflects a bitter racial history. Peach orchards required years of sunk costs before bearing fruit. Along with the vicissitudes of weather, this economic reality assured that only landed white planters with deep pockets could start orchards and make reliable income. The appeal to Northern capital was also framed as an invitation to “whiten the Black Belt.” And far from replacing the blood-stained cotton economy, peach growers continued to rely on underpaid Black labor. The color line that made cheap, Black work possible was also policed with fanatical violence. In 1899 for instance—a record year for the peach crop—Georgia witnessed 27 lynch mobs. In Billie Holiday’s haunting elegy “Strange Fruit,” she laments bitterly, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit.”

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At the same time, peaches featured positively in Black agrarian visions of progress. Pastoral reformers like Henry Hunt and W.E.B. Du Bois foresaw Black people making “blossom the waste places in your fields,” as Booker T. Washington remarked. Peach orchards were, for Du Bois, the “Land of Canaan” in the “Cotton Kingdom,” filled with potential. Fort Valley State University, a historically Black school in the heart of Georgia’s peach country, began as a horticultural training program for Black workers but later became integral to civil rights and environmental justice activism in middle Georgia.

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To be clear, cotton and its brutal labor regime never vanished. Far from displacing cotton, Georgia’s peaches flourished with it in seasonal rhythm: “Prune peaches; plant cotton. Thin peaches; chop cotton. Pick peaches; pick cotton,” Okie notes. Between June and August, the labor force in Fort Valley could swell by seven or eight times as Black farmhands arrived in trucks from surrounding counties. In the hot, humid summers, workers would prune, thin, plant, pick, wash, and package peaches, then load crates onto trains and trucks. In 1936, Dorothea Lange captured these peach pickers in vivid, near-cinematic detail for the Depression-era Farm Security Administration. Convicts, German and Italian POWs, women, undocumented Mexicans, and state-sponsored “guest” workers eventually joined their ranks as Jim Crow and World War II pushed poor Black tenants toward urban industries in the North and West. In tandem, machines began to harvest cotton. By the 1970s the sector was almost entirely mechanized. Fruit producers, deprived from the cotton economy’s convenient labor pool, increasingly relied on the federal government to meet labor shortages, first with Mexicans through the Bracero program, then West Indians through the British West Indies Temporary Alien Labor Program, and finally the H-2A guest-worker program, established in 1986.

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Faced with the decline of the tenant system, Georgia’s peach industry came to accept the “crew bosses,” labor contractors who organize a work group—whether a Sunday church in Macon, a group of young men from Haiti, or migrant families from Mexico—in exchange for a commission. The crew boss system is ripe for abuse. Reports of overcrowded housing, wage theft, and sexual harassment are sadly common. The dark realities of paternalistic labor relations in the crew boss and H-2A system are what political scientist Margaret Gray calls the “price of proximity.” In Georgia, like most states, farm laborers still do not have a legal right to a day of rest, overtime pay, or collective bargaining.

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The sweet fruit has carried many connotations for Americans over the years. A taste of exotic Persia and Shangri-La. A sweet respite on the Underground Railroad. The triumph of science over nature. Leafy orchards to shore up our eroded, barren cotton fields. A clever marketing ploy to hide the ugly racism of the South. These narratives compete. The future of the Georgia Peach depends on which one takes root. In this year’s runoff, the Peach State is split on climate change and migration. Fort Valley rarely lost a peach crop to frost in its golden years: only two from 1874–94, and none from 1900–26. In recent years, warm winters and late freezes have cost peach farmers billions; in 2018 Georgia farmers lost up to 50 percent of their peach crop. In 2017, they lost 85 percent. Climate change, of course, makes extreme weather and warm winters more likely and may hit the South hardest. Peach farmers have taken individual steps to safeguard their fruit, like by spraying hydrogen cyanamide to simulate chill hours, heating trees with smudge pots, or planting frost-resistant cultivars, but more ambitious action will be required.

Then there’s migration. “I lay awake at night worrying,” confided peach producer Bob Dickey to the Macon Telegraph. “If the border [were] to close, if this [guest-worker] program were to get halted in some way, I’d lose everything I own.” Indeed, in 2011 Georgia’s farmers did lose big when Georgia’s draconian House Bill 87, seeking to drive undocumented immigrants out of the state, left a labor shortage so acute that millions of dollars of blueberries, onions, and melons were left to rot.

Though the peach itself may fade from the Georgia landscape, its contested mythology remains alive and well. “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people,” declared Cesar Chavez. In the end, it’s the people, Georgians, who will decide what fruits may grow in the land of cotton.

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