Summer is peak growing season for peaches, and you can find a sweet peach in nearly any grocery or market this time of year, but one Southern peach represents more than a seasonal memory of deliciousness.
The peach has deep historical roots in Georgia, says Kennesaw State University professor William “Tom” Okie, author of The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South.
Ever heard of the Peach State? If you’ve ever traveled through Georgia, you’ll find that the peach is a cultural icon, a symbol of the state’s ambitious break from the rocky reputation of its agricultural past.
But how did the state snag this legendary moniker?
The deciduous fruit first emerged as a commercial crop at a time in Southern history when cotton was the economic engine, around the late 19th century, Okie says. But that agricultural powerhouse also had a very strong tie to poverty and racial conflict, he contends.
“Georgia was looking to boost its own reputation at that time,” says the history professor. And the delicate peach was the answer to its slavery-riddled past, though ironically its production depended on the labor of those slaves’ descendants.
Relative to other states, however, the peach industry in Georgia is small. South Carolina produces more peaches than Georgia, and California produces the most peaches of any U.S. state.
With a market glut for peaches, New Yorkers and Philadelphians awaited the Georgia-grown fruit by refrigerated railway cars each spring, he says. And we still love peaches, with nearly 30 million pounds grown annually in Georgia.
Yet, Georgia was the earliest in the Northern markets because of its early harvest season, and quickly gained a name for itself for producing high-quality fruit, Okie says. Georgia peaches debut in May and early June, which enabled the state to quickly lay claim to the “peach state” identifier and, along with the iconic symbol, gained a newfound reputation.
“The Georgia peach was frequently associated with affluence and European orchards and vineyards, and unlike cotton, the peach had no negative reputation in the state’s cultural and agricultural history,” Okie says. It’s a delicate fruit, only lasting about 3-5 days once picked from the tree.
“The peach may be a symbol, but it is real – grown in real soil, with real pests and real challenges,” he argues. “But the association between crop and icon is getting weaker partly because so few of us have had a good peach in season.”
“The peach may be a symbol, but it is real – grown in real soil, with real pests and real challenges.”William “Tom” Okie, professor of history at Kennesaw State University
As August kicks off National Peach Month, Georgia’s peach production remains very profitable, and it’s been the state’s official fruit for nearly 25 years.
Grab that Georgia peach while you can. Summer won’t be the same without sinking your teeth into that sweet delicacy.