At the same time, Russell was also engaged in a passionate and futile defense of segregation against the African American civil rights movement. African Americans’ growing demand for equal rights, along with the massive postwar migration of rural Southerners to urban areas, laid bare the Southern peach industry’s dependence on a labor system that relied on systemic discrimination.
Peach labor has always been – and for the foreseeable future will remain – hand labor. Unlike cotton, which was almost entirely mechanized in the Southeast by the 1970s, peaches were too delicate and ripeness too difficult to judge for mechanization to be a viable option. As the rural working class left Southern fields in waves, first in the 1910s and ‘20s and again in the 1940s and '50s, growers found it increasingly difficult to find cheap and readily available labor.
For a few decades they used dwindling local crews, supplemented by migrants and schoolchildren. In the 1990s they leveraged their political connections once more to move their undocumented Mexican workers onto the federal H-2A guest worker program.
Climate and weather clearly play important roles in peach production. But the more interesting story is not just about the changing climate, but how growers of specialty crops like peaches have navigated that unpredictability, with help from government programs like H-2A and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.
At times, producers have actually welcomed that unpredictability. Good harvest years can produce market gluts that make it hard to turn a profit. A bad harvest year generally can be a good financial year for individual growers because they can charge more for whatever peaches they produce.
Clement and Katharine Ball Ripley, moderately well-known authors in the 1930s, tried peach growing in North Carolina in the 1920s. In a memoir about their experience, “Sand in My Shoes,” Katharine reflected that although they had been unsuccessful as farmers, they had learned “to gamble, the pleasantist life in the world.”
Variable weather and environmental conditions make the Georgia peach possible. They also threaten its existence. But the Georgia peach also teaches us how important it is that we learn to tell fuller stories of the food we eat – stories that take into account not just rain patterns and nutritional content, but history, culture and political power.
This is an updated version of an article originally published July 20, 2017.
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William Thomas Okie has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Social Sciences Research Council. His father W. R. Okie III was a USDA peach breeder from 1980 to 2011.