DESPITE the fact that California is the nation’s largest peach producer — and the fact that South Carolina also produces more peaches than we do — Georgia is still affectionately known as the Peach State.
Kennesaw State University Assistant Professor of History William Thomas Okie has written a marvelously entertaining and informative book on the history of the peach crop in the South, with particular emphasis on his native Georgia: The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South, published by Cambridge University Press.
The book explains the differing labor forces and trends which have made the crop possible. Of particular interest is the story of J.H. Hale, a Connecticut businessman who came to Georgia in 1890 specifically to launch a regional peach industry and bring Northern techniques of efficiency to the “New South.”
Initially buying into stereotypes of African American laborers in the South as inefficient and lazy, Hale quickly learns that the black farm workers he comes in contact with are often more competent and enterprising than the workers he is used to up North. They help inform his evolving philosophy of the nature of efficiency.
We spoke to Okie by phone.
What prompted you to write about this particular topic, in this particularly accessible way?
I came to the topic pretty naturally. I grew up in Peach County, Ga. My father was a breeder, and I spent lot of time in the orchards when I was young. I wanted to tell a story about place. It’s an everyday landscape for me, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
The Northern entrepreneur J.H. Hale features strongly in the book, coming down and sort of preaching a marketing gospel of how the peach crop would take the South to the next level.
In my research I came across Hale, and he was such an interesting person, and so vital to the subject, that he had to be in the book.
The phenomenon of northerners coming down after the Civil War to start business ventures is much broader than just agriculture, though. It involved cheap land, it involved expansion of railroads.
There was a certain group interested in growing something new here in the wake of Emancipation, and they brought with them a certain emphasis on efficiency, and productivity. It wasn’t just the cheapness of the labor and the land that attracted them.
How do peaches fit in with cotton, the other instantly recognizable, stereotypical Southern crop?
There is a kind of a symbiotic relationship between the crops. After the war, the rice culture totally collapsed mostly due to lack of labor. Growing rice is very labor intensive. After Emancipation, when they were no longer enslaved, plantation workers weren’t willing to go out during the hurricane and patch the dike, for example. When you’re free from the plantation, you’re free to be hired, and that also means you’re free to move around as you see fit.
But after the Civil War there wasn’t necessarily that type of disruption with the cotton crop. The South kept on growing cotton, and in some ways intensified its cultivation. The numbers actually don’t drop that much right after the war.
And there’s this wonderful way the seasons line up to work perfectly, so that both crops aren’t being harvested at the same time. Peaches became the second monoculture in a way, after cotton.
You seem to spend more time talking about the issue of who works on the peach crop than about the crop itself. Why?
I enjoy looking at the labor question. With a perishable crop like peaches, labor is the crucial piece. When I visited with farmers in middle Georgia for the book, they kept talking about it openly. Aside from pests, disease, and weather, labor is their number one vulnerability.
Over the years the Southern agricultural work force moved from being primarily African American to predominantly Mexican.
It’s very important to point out the difference between guest workers and migrant workers. The bulk of workers on the Georgia peach crop are Mexican, but they aren’t really migrant workers per se.
You very often get the same person pruning the peach tree as will later pick the tree. Ironically the Georgia peach crop actually tends to have a very stable work force.
What you have in the Georgia peach industry is a low-wage market in high-wage nation. These wages are very low by American standards, but by Mexican standards they’re high enough to provide incentive. To them, the U.S. peach market is basically an extension of the Mexican economy. That’s the conundrum.
In the Trump era, is there concern over the future of this labor force here?
Growers are aware of the reality of their labor situation. There is strong support by farmers for things like guest worker programs. They still remember what happened to their industries after two huge immigration raids in the ‘90s. One on the peach crops near Fort Valley, and another on the Vidalia onion fields.
Attitudes have definitely changed in rural Georgia about welcoming Mexican workers. In some of these little towns, you’ll see signs at the bank saying they’ve hired Spanish speaking tellers, things like that.