Peaches

Georgia Peaches

In Maps101 by mapsbecky

Peaches

Peaches are native to China, but they grow especially well in Georgia and other states in the southeastern United States. This year, unpredictable winter temperatures reduced Georgia’s peach crop by 80 percent.

Like people, states can have nicknames. These names can tell us something about that state.

Arizona is nicknamed the Grand Canyon State after the famous geological wonder located in the northern part of the state. Louisiana is nicknamed the Pelican State because of the large number of brown pelicans who call it home. New Hampshire is nicknamed the Granite State for the large numbers of granite rock formations and quarries found there.

The state of Georgia is nicknamed the Peach State. Georgia’s peaches have a reputation with many people for being the tastiest around. Usually you would expect to find lots of peaches from Georgia in your local market. Unfortunately, 2017 has been an especially difficult year for growers. In fact, in May growers predicted that this year’s crop will be 80 percent smaller than expected.

In February, unusually warm winter temperatures prevented some peaches from growing properly. Then in March, especially low temperatures damaged even more fruit. Now, growers are saying that 2017’s peach harvest is one of the worst in living memory. Fans of peaches will have to settle for the fruit grown in other states.

Delicious and Easy to Grow

The scientific name for peaches is Prunus persica. Prunus is Latin for plum, a fruit to which the peach is closely related. Persica is Latin for Persia, which is modern-day Iran, where early Europeans thought that peaches originated. In fact, peaches are native to northwest China. Archaeologists have found evidence for peach cultivation in China as early as 6,000 BCE. Peaches reached Europe by 300 BCE, when they began to be cultivated in Greece.

Peaches were brought to America by Spanish monks. They were first introduced to the area around St. Augustine, Florida. The trees spread. By 1607, peach trees were common in the area around Jamestown, Virginia. People who lived in the southeast part of the North American continent discovered that peaches were easy to grow. Even today, peaches can grow wild along roadsides and in backyards.

“In Georgia we have the cool nights, lots of rainfall, [and] very hot summers,” says Mark Sanchez, the CEO of Lane Packing in Fort Valley, Georgia, one of that state’s largest peach growers.

At first, farmers used wild peaches to make brandy or to feed hogs. In the 1850s, people in the southeastern U.S. wanted to create a fruit industry. People began breeding fruits such as grapes, apples, pears, and gooseberries. Efforts to develop peach varieties, however, gave the best results. The most famous was the type called known as the Elberta peach, which was introduced in the 1870s. While other fruits produced well in the southern climate, none surpassed the success of the peach. The number of peach trees increased more than five times between 1889 and 1924.

Although it is easy to grow peaches, growing the sort of fruit that people want to eat and that can be transported safely over large distances is not so simple. Peach growers have had to learn a lot about the environment to produce reliable annual crops. In February and March when trees start blooming, they are especially at risk from damage caused by freezing temperatures—including peach trees. In order to protect them, growers use wind machines, heaters, and water sprinklers on chilly nights to keep trees from chilling below freezing.

Along with temperature, peaches are vulnerable  to other environmental problems. Peach crops can be damaged by insects such as San Jose scale and plum curculio. The fruit is also susceptible to a fungal disease called brown rot. In the 1960s, peach growers in Georgia and South Carolina battled a disease called peach tree short life (PTSL). This disease causes young to trees to suddenly wither and die in the first year or two of producing fruit.

orchard

Peach trees begin blooming in Georgia and other southeastern states in February and March. If late winter temperatures are too high or too low, that year’s peach crop could be negatively affected.

The Business of Peaches

Surprisingly, peaches make up only a small part of Georgia’s economy. They account for only 0.38 percent of the money the state generates from agriculture. Georgia produces about 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. peach crop. Georgia actually earns more money from pine straw, blueberries, and deer hunting leases. Georgia’s annual production of broiler chickens is worth more than 84 times the value of the typical peach crop. While there are about 11,000 acres of peach orchards in Georgia, more than one million acres are planted with cotton. In 2014, Georgia ranked second in the U.S. in cotton production behind Texas.

As of 2014, 23 U.S. states produce peaches. Along with Georgia, the top four peach-producing states include California, South Carolina, and New Jersey. The largest grower is California. In 2014, California supplied almost half of the U.S. fresh peach crop.

Part of the reason why people associate Georgia with peaches is because of marketing campaigns conducted by growers in the 1920s.

Peach growers tried to bring more attention to the fruit in the 1920s though peach blossom festivals. These festivals demonstrated the prosperity of Georgia’s peach-growing region. They included parades, barbecues, and shows, as well as speeches by local politicians. The festivals proved to be very popular. Towns with about 4,000 residents sometimes reported festival attendance of more than 20,000 people.

Festivals featured elaborate pageants which told the story of the peach. The peach was usually portrayed by a young woman, who searched the world for a husband and a place to settle. The young woman traveled all the way from China, finally arriving in Georgia, which was her true home.

A quick and refreshing way to enjoy peaches this summer is to make a peach cooler. Take one cup of sliced peaches and freeze them for at least 45 minutes. Place the frozen peaches into a blender along with two cups of milk and half a teaspoon of lemon juice. Blend the ingredients well. Serve the cold peach cooler in a glass. Sprinkle it with nutmeg if you want extra zip.

Additional Resources

Read more about the history of peaches in Georgia at the Smithsonian and the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Learn how to grow peaches at the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the University of California.

See what Georgia farmers are growing at the Georgia Farm Bureau.

Images and Sources

Peaches photo: Jack Dykinga
Peaches photo license: Public domain

Peach orchard photo: Karen Blaha
Peach orchard photo license: Creative Commons 2.0