Explore the rich history and intricate process of peach farming in Georgia. Join host David Zelski as he delves into the roots of Pearson Farms, a fifth-generation peach and pecan farm in Fort Valley. From the days of recruiting young workers to the advanced logistics of today's peach industry, discover the fascinating stories etched on the walls of an old boarding house and the evolution of peach varieties at Pearson Farms. Gain insights into the art and science of picking and packing peaches, ensuring that the iconic Georgia peaches reach your hands ripe and ready. Tune in for a juicy episode that captures the essence of Georgia's Peach State legacy.


Will McGehee: The way we had to recruit people into Fort Valley to have this massive, the massive need for work during this short amount of time, you had to house them and you had to get them from other places.

David Zelski: Imagine you're 18 years old. It's the summer before your freshman year of college and you're looking to make a little money. You and 63 strangers are invited to Fort Valley, Georgia, where you'll live for a few months. You get a room and board and three hearty meals each day, plus a salary in exchange for your hard work in the fields. For more than 40 years, this is how Georgia Peach Farms operated. 

Theme Song: I came from the mud, there's dirt on my hands. Strong like a tree, there's roots where I stand.

David Zelski: I'm David Zelski, and this is the Fork in the Road podcast presented by Georgia Grown and the fine folks at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Each episode, we feature stories from Georgia's farmers, fishermen, merchants, artisans, chefs and others who help provide Georgia-grown products to folks in the Peach State and beyond. Today we are in Middle Georgia. Pretty much, smack in the middle of the state at Pearson Farms, just outside of the town of Fort Valley.

Will McGehee: Okay. I'm Wil McGehee, and I am the sales VP for Pearson Farm. And I sell all the peaches that — that we grow on the farm.

David Zelski: Last name McGehee. But you have a connection with the family, tell me about that.

Will McGehee: My mother was Ann Pearson McGehee. She was a Pearson. She's fourth generation. I'm fifth generation. And, she was actually — her grandparents — this was her grandparents house. The porch we're sitting on right now, and, and and peach farming's in our blood.

David Zelski: This farm is where peaches can be picked, packaged, shipped to a store and enjoyed by a customer in a matter of hours. This farm is also where young men and women spend a few weeks living in a boarding house and picking peaches in the hot summer sun. In this episode, we'll cover all of that and more.

Will McGehee: So the Pearson family, we've been growing peaches on this dirt since 1885, so we've been here a long time. Moses Winlock Pearson was the first Pearson that came to this area. He was actually a lumber guy in Woodbury, Ga., and heard about the peach industry kind of burgeoning down here, in this area. Came down, planted some trees, and we've been farming peaches ever since. Since 1885, we have added pecan trees to that portfolio. So pecans at that time was not really a commercial crop. But we found out, you know, several decades later, that — that people would want pecans as well. And so we became kind of a peaches and pecan farm, in the 1920s.

David Zelski: You had an off season and now you don't.

Will McGehee: That's right. Pecans are a nice crop for us because you don't do anything to them in the summer except, you know, mow some orchards and scout for pests and whatnot. Once the peaches go dormant and we've picked all the peaches, we get a nice month off in September where it's kind of quiet, and then we start shaking trees in October. And pecan harvest is October, November and December.

David Zelski: I want to step back and address something Will said.

Will McGehee: While we're really deep into peaches, pecans are kind of quiet.

David Zelski: Really deep into peaches. What he means by that is picking peaches is basically a science. Or maybe it's an art form. Maybe picking peaches at the right time is a scientific art? I don't know, but what I do know is that it's not easy.

Will McGehee: So, the process of growing and packing a peach is pretty complicated. So we're kind of more in the logistics business than farming. So you've got to get the right guys to the right orchard on the right morning when they're going to be picked perfectly. Growing peaches, you can miss it by a day. And there's a lot of softs in the orchard. And then you've got a peach that's not packable. You can also pick it the day early, and you've got green peaches. And so peaches are ripening so fast that you have to be there the moment that it's ready. And that's really the art of what my Uncle Al and my cousin Lawton do on a day-to-day basis is the when to pick it.

David Zelski: See what I mean?

Will McGehee: And as soon as you pick the peach off the tree, a series of ridiculous logistics happens to get it to market the very next morning. So we pick it in the orchards and picking bags, and we put them on tractors and trucks that bring it in to the packing house. And once it gets to the packing house, our job is to get that peach cooled. So we put it through what we call a hydro cooler, which cools down the peach and brings the temperature down from, you know, sometimes 100-degree pulp temperatures on those peaches. They're hot when they're coming out of the orchard and we'll cool them down. That's kind of the first step in the process at the packing house. Then we'll bring them out and dump them on a series of belts that — where we wash them and clean them. And then we'll go through the the grading process where we're looking for anything that might be soft. Maybe a bird landed on the limb and pecked at a peach. We pull those out; some scarring, anything like that, we pull out of the peach in the grading process. And then we send it across our sorter that allows our packers to put them in boxes, and we box them up 25 pounds to the box and off they go to the market. And we also have some separate packaging. Bags are very popular these days. A lot of people are wanting their produce to that maybe not be mounded up into bulk, you know, piles. It's been prepackaged into these 2-pound bags where they can just grab and go and walk out. So we've got that option as well. So we're, we're, we're packing in various and sundry packages to get it to the customer, every day. My job is to kind of control the process of peaches through the packing house, is to make sure the customers are there with their trucks waiting, and we'll start loading trucks right around lunchtime, and we'll load trucks till 8 or 9 at night for that day's picking. Get it all gone and they'll be typically arriving the next morning. You know, to their to their destination. Atlanta's just right up the road, which is nice. And so, it's not uncommon for a peach that the Atlanta folks are eating, on a Friday morning, were hanging on a tree Thursday morning and we were able to get it picked, get it packed, get it in a — on a pallet on a truck and delivered the next morning. And you know, that that logistics nightmare that we go through every day is kind of what gives us our competitive advantage over California peaches that — that — that are oftentimes 10, 12, 14 days old by the time they actually, you know, get it to someone's counter at home. And you just don't have to worry about that with Georgia peaches. It's it's a it's a fast and furious process.

David Zelski: He called it 'a logistics nightmare.' That process does sound complicated, but it is pretty awesome too, right? A peach can be on a tree today and in your hand ready to eat tomorrow. I know what you're thinking: "David, I understand this is how the process works today, but what was all that stuff about living and working on the farm at 18 years old?" It's time for a short history lesson.

Will McGehee: So where we're talking today is kind of the epicenter of where our family started growing peaches, since 1885. So, you see behind me, this was the old Lee Pope hotel, and, it's historical in the fact that peaches require so much, so much hand labor in a very short amount of time. And — and so it's often been said that the a job working in peaches is difficult because we only need you for about 100 days during the summer and then what do you do the rest of the year? And so what had to happen is each farm had to, build a, what we call that a hotel. It's basically a boarding house where kids would come to Fort Valley each summer and, we would have kids. The walls in there are actually signed in some of the rooms where kids would meet. And — and this is where they stayed. There'd be, 32 girls and 32 boys. Girls on the bottom floor, boys on the top floor. And, and they would room together. They would meet each other here, and we would send someone to the railroad downtown. We would have a sign, you know, "Need 12 Today." And carloads of kids would come to Fort Valley because this is where the summer work was. So it was a lot of high school kids and college-age kids that were out for the summer. And back then, families would just send their kids to Fort Valley to work in peaches. We were — we were one of dozens and dozens of farms. There were over 30 packing houses in Fort Valley. And so you could come to — come to Fort Valley and find work. And you'd live in that place for six or seven weeks, meeting folks you'd never seen before. You'd work in peaches together, kind of like a summer camp, but you get paid and, and that's what happened here on this, on this, this dirt. And they would my, my great-grandmother lived here, and she was in charge of feeding them. So she had a — there was a huge mess hall on the side of it. And, and, there was actually a man that wrote an article in the Leader Tribune — was very interesting in where he — he lived and worked here. And he said you'd come downstairs in the morning and there would be, you know, bowls of grits and eggs and country ham and orange juice and milk ready. And they'd feed you like that, and then you'd go work. You'd come back to the same table at lunch, and there'd be pork chops and butter beans and mashed potatoes, and you'd eat a probably 4,000 calorie lunch, go back out, and then they feed you dinner at the end of the day. And so it was room and board. So you'd get your — you get your towel, your sheets and then they fed you three meals a day as well. And that was kind of the, the way we had to recruit people into Fort Valley to have this massive — the massive need for work during this short amount of time. You had to house them and you had to get them from other places. And so that's kind of how it has happened up until now. And so because of that influx of people, behind us here, we had a, a depot. And that was where — like a supply store — where you could get things you needed: toiletries and sundries and food and things like that, you were able to get there. Also, the mail came out here, there. And so this was kind of the the epicenter of the farm. And it was — it was built: This railroad was actually built to bring peaches into downtown Fort Valley, where it would link up with other cars from other farms and often go to kind of the populace northeast. And this is this is, just a neat, neat little slice of Georgia history. You know, this is kind of where it began for our family. We're the oldest — oldest family still farming peaches left in the state. So we've — we've been here a very long time and are proud of our heritage. We are.

David Zelski: What what time period was that? Where the boarding house was going on.

Will McGehee: So the boarding house was in about 1910 is when it began and — and went through the early '50s. And so it was around 40 years. It spanned two generations of Pearsons. So my great-grandfather really, built it, ran it almost like the hotel. And then my grandfather saw its final few days before kind of cars became the thing and buses and, the huge bus plant is in Fort Valley: Bluebird Body Company. And Bluebird, they had buses here and then buses started busing people in from around the state of Georgia for the summer. And it kind of lost the need to — to sleep here, so to speak. So that's why it was during that time.

David Zelski: And even though the boarding house isn't in use anymore, the building is still there on the farm.

Will McGehee: Yeah, like most old buildings, if you keep the water out of it, it'll last. You know, if you can just keep it dry. And so we have — we have been very disciplined on keeping the roof, well-maintained, keeping the water out of the hotel. And — and it's a really neat building. If those walls could talk. I bet you could hear some interested stories of of of of agony and hard work and, you know, all of that, but also some — some friendships were born there. And, there's just the walls in there have been signed with years and buddies that met in the thing; it's just a neat place.

David Zelski: Let's take a look at some of the messages left by young men and women on those walls.

Will McGehee: This is one of the spots where you can — you can kind of see on the wall, the girls that stayed in here signed the wall. And says, I am. "I am leaving Lee Pope today for Saint Louis, Missouri. May God bless you all, for I cannot. Yours truly, Star Cobb, July 8th, 1912." "Going to see my little Willy tomorrow. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas." That's interesting. That's got some some other people that have signed it. "God be with us till we meet again. 1914 July 29th." This is one of those — I don't know if you can see the, some of these guys, we found out years later that that this guy, Henry Boulton was, was a very influential Atlanta attorney. And this was — he signed this door in June 1927 and went on to be attorney there. Edward Edwin Isom from 1919, Pat Wilks from 1919. So they would just kind of sign the door and say that they were here.

David Zelski: Just doing the summer work 100 years ago. Wow. OK, back to the here and now. Everyone agrees that Georgia peaches are iconic, but why is that? Why Georgia? Why peaches?

Will McGehee: Man the Georgia peach is, like you said, it's iconic. I mean, it is a whether you go to Minnesota, California, Florida, Canada, wherever you go, you say the word "peach." The next word out of everybody's mouth is, "oh, are you from Georgia?" And that's kind of a neat thing. It's kind of our signature fruit for the state. And, and, and we're just honored to be a part of that, that legacy. We have a special climate here in Georgia where there's a lot of peaches grown in other places. But peaches from Georgia are special for several different reasons. Our — we grow in this amazing red clay here in Middle Georgia, where our orchards are. And the clay gives the peaches so much goodness and nutrients. And it's a great place to grow trees, first of all. Our climate is amazing because we get enough cold in the winter, so they sleep and they're dormant. But then we get a ton of heat in the summertime. And what makes it really rough to live in, as we all know, what the Georgia summers are like, that humidity and heat. But that's what's giving the peaches all of its sweetness. And so, that's where our sugar comes from. And so other growing regions in the country, there's really cold at night and then they heat up during the day, and then they get cold at night again. But as y'all know, you know, it's hot all day long and all night long in Georgia, and our peaches just never stop sweetening up. And that really gives us our advantage in the marketplace. And really why I think we're the Peach State.

David Zelski: So remember, the next time you're sweating in 85-degree weather at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday in July, it is that heat that makes our peaches so sweet. Now it's not just one Georgia peach. There are varieties. Explain these varieties, what they look like and what it takes and how you make it happen.

Will McGehee: So at Pearson Farm, we grow many different varieties of peaches because a single variety will only ripen up over an 8- to 10-day period. So you're going to pick that tree every other day for about 10 to 12 days. You know, you'll pick the same tree 5 or 6 times every other day. And, and then those peaches are gone for that variety. So if you want a nice long summer of peaches, you've got to find varieties to plant in sequential order. So you have a nice supply of peaches. So we start with a variety called Flavor Rich in May. And we plant over 40 varieties throughout the summer. And we end in the middle of August with Flame Prince. That's our final variety. And as we sit today, currently we're picking, Fire Prince and Scarlet Prince and Harvesters and Sierra Rich. Those are those are four varieties that we're, picking actually today on the farm.

David Zelski: So what are the fuzzies?

Will McGehee: The fuzzies. Fuzzies is a is a type of peach that are, obviously fuzzy in nature because that's the signature, you know, of a peach. And so fuzzies denote something that is a little bit riper peach, a little bit more tree-ripened peach and something that we take a lot of care on, when we get it out into the marketplace. And we invite everybody to wash that peach when they get it. But when we bring it into our shed, we're actually washing it as well. And so all the peaches you're getting are — have been washed and cleaned, but they still have a little bit of that fuzzy texture on it, which reminds you, you're eating a peach, not a nectarine, so.

David Zelski: Let's now learn more about the different varieties of peaches grown at Pearson Farms.

Will McGehee: So, these are a couple different varieties of peaches. Like I said, we grow over 40 of them, and each one kind of brings its own personality to the table. So this particular one is a Fire Prince. I know that because it's kind of got kind of a raised suture here. And this peach has been on my desk for about three days. I love to take all the varieties we grow, bring them into the office and watch how they soften. You know, the art of growing a peach is picking it when it's still hard, but it's fully ripe, and we can't afford to pick soft peaches on the trees because it would never make it to market. And so the art of doing it right is waiting until that last minute where it's got all the sugar it's going to get, and the next thing it's going to do is turn soft and go downhill. So we're peaking at the peak of, of sweetness, the peak of ripeness, but it's still firm enough to get to the folks that are about to eat it. So in doing that, I watch a lot of varieties. And so this particular variety is a Fire Prince. We're in Freestone season now, and the Freestone season is marked by, you know, when you cut into your fruit and it just comes right off the seed. And so, this peach is, is [takes a bite].  It's phenomenal, Fire Prince is kind of our first freestone peach, followed very closely by a Sierra Rich. And a Sierra Rich is a little more firm flesh. It can hang on the tree a couple days longer than a Fire Prince. But is a — is an absolute delicious peach as well. And, you can see the texture's just a little bit different. I good.

David Zelski: Mmm.

Will McGehee: That good?

David Zelski: Still great.

Will McGehee: Still great. Still firm.

David Zelski: A little firmer. Yeah.

Will McGehee: That's it.

David Zelski: Do these hold longer?

Will McGehee: So this peach was picked two days after this peach. So this peach in a couple of days will kind of condition and ripen and get into this point and —

David Zelski: I could eat all that all day.

Will McGehee: I tell folks all the time, like, I don't think we — I don't think we we treat peaches right when we bring them home. Like, typically people will put them in their fridge to make them last longer. And peaches really need to be left on the counter. And and you actually want to see the skin starting to shrivel just a little bit. And you know, at that point it's going to be juicy all the way down to the core. And — and you might want to eat it over a sink because it's, it'll be a lot of juice coming out.

David Zelski: There's your lesson for the day. Stop putting your peaches in the fridge. Leave them on the counter and let them shrivel a little. The last thing we need to know is where we can find these peaches.

Will McGehee: You know, the process of selling peaches has changed every generation. It was — we started out where we would pack peaches in baskets. We'd put them on train cars. The train car would go into Fort Valley. The biggest ice house in the world was located right here in Little Fort Valley. They'd drag these giant chunks of ice on top of the train car. The train car would go and ice would melt and keep the peaches cool, and it would — baskets would go up the East Coast and make deliveries. And since then, the advent of trucking came around in the '60s and '70s, where we were able to put them on pallets and get them places a little bit quicker with refrigerated — reefer trucks. And the idea is that you can you can pick a peach riper and you can get it to the market quicker. And so as it stands now, today, we've, we've got a lot of different outlets to sell our fruit. We love the, the farmer's markets in Atlanta. Good friend of the families that grew up right here, a guy named John Short, brings our peaches to market up there. And he's in, he's in, I think, over 40 markets around Atlanta bringing Pearson peaches there. John does a great job for us — kind of boots on the ground. And he — he is able to — to penetrate the restaurant community in Atlanta. And so a lot of the peaches you get through the regular wholesale community are not quite as, as, as, as ripened and fresh as these. And so he's done a great job at getting in the restaurant community there. We also have a mail order department here where we actually pick the peaches, we pack them in these boxes with the little foam inserts, UPS picks up every afternoon, and within 48 hours that box will be on your front steps. And so whether you're in Atlanta or whether you're in Miami, whether you're out in Wyoming, we can get that box to anybody in the country in two days. And so you're able to kind of eat the peaches through the mail. And — and that's a fun gift to give folks, too. You know, you got a dad that lives in another state. We get a lot of people who give Father's Day gifts, and and it's a neat way to reach the folks.

David Zelski: Mail order peaches, man. Living in the future is so cool.

Will McGehee: Our main source of distribution is through the retail channel. And we are — we have a lot of great vendors in Georgia. We sell to Whole Foods and Ingles and Kroger and Publix and Walmart and most anywhere you would buy fruit in Georgia would have Georgia peaches. And so, I know that's where a lot of folks get their produce and you're able to get it there as well.

David Zelski: So we've gone from hiring young men and women to work long hours in the heat, to studying and mastering the ever-changing art and science of picking peaches. Pearson Farms continues to help Georgia live up to its Peach State name.

Want more stories like this one? Well, you can watch A Fork in the Road on GPB-TV or any time on the GPB.org website. GPB.org/Podcasts is where you can listen to and subscribe to this podcast or download it on your favorite podcast platform.

I'm David Zelski. Thanks for listening to A Fork in the Road.


A Fork in the Road airs Saturdays at noon and Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on GPB-TV. Check your local listings for other replays throughout the week and watch all episodes anytime at GPB.org/ForkintheRoad.  Please download and subscribe to the Fork in the Road podcast at GPB.org/ForkintheRoadpodcast or on your favorite podcast platform as well. 


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