During peach season, Georgia’s roads are dotted with farm stands selling fresh peaches. Year-round, tourist traps sell mugs, hats, shirts and even snow globes with peaches on them. At the beginning of the Georgia peach boom, one of Atlanta’s major roads was renamed Peachtree Street. But despite its associations with perfectly pink-orange peaches, “The Peach State” of Georgia is neither the biggest peach producing state (that honor goes to California) nor are peaches its biggest crop.
So why is it that Georgia peaches are so iconic? The answer, like so much of Southern history, has a lot to do with slavery — specifically, its end and a need for the South to rebrand itself. Yet, as historian William Thomas Okie writes in his book The Georgia Peach, the fruit may be sweet but the industry in the South was formed on the same culture of white supremacy as cotton and other slave-tended crops.
Peaches, which are native to Asia, have been growing haphazardly in the United States since they were brought over by Europeans in the 17th century. But it wasn’t until the latter half of the 1800s that aspiring horticulturists began to try and grow the peach as an orchard crop. In 1856, a Belgian father-and-son pair, Louis and Prosper Berckmans, purchased a plot of orchard land in Augusta, Ga., that would come to be known as Fruitland. Their intention was to demonstrate that fruit and ornamental plants could become just as important an industry in the South as cotton, which was ruining the soil with its intensive planting.
Horticulture slowly became accepted as a gentleman’s pursuit. But it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery that the sudden availability of labor gave peaches the perfect opening. After the war, “fruit growing, which to the cotton planter was a secondary matter, [became] one of great solicitude to the farmer,” Prosper Berckmans wrote in 1876. By the 1880s, Fruitland had grown so large and essential that it mailed 25,000 catalogs every year to horticulturists in the United States and abroad.
Freedmen now needed year-round employment, and the labor requirements of the peach season — tree trimming and harvest — fit perfectly with the time of year when cotton was slow. Though the story of the post-bellum South is often one of industrialization and urbanization, it was also a time of redefining what agriculture would mean without the enslaved labor plantation owners had relied on. (NPR)