Peaches in America
Peaches and their recessive hairless variety, nectarines, are produced by trees of the species Prunus Persica and are closely related to other stone fruits, such as cherries, apricots, almonds, and plums. Peaches were first grown and domesticated in China roughly 7,500 years ago. Prized for their robust size and succulent flesh, peaches traveled across the Atlantic with early European colonists. By 1571, the Spanish had already planted peaches on Georgia’s coastal islands.
Over time, peach farmers discovered that the humid climate and clay soils of Georgia’s Atlantic Coastal Plain were not exactly ideal for peaches. Like most fruit trees, peach trees tend to thrive in sandy, well-drained soils away from areas of potential flooding. Peach trees also require both a significant chilling period during dormancy—about three weeks of temperatures between 0 and 10 °C—and a sustained period of heat between 20 and 30 °C for crops to mature properly. Between the relatively stringent soil and climatic conditions necessary for peach growth, global production has historically been concentrated in countries such as Italy, Spain, Turkey, Chile, and, of course, native China, whose warm but seasonal climates and mountainous terrains are ideal for peach trees.
While the humid coasts of the Southeast US were not ideal for peach trees, early American farmers found more success inland.The confluence of the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the Piedmont—two of Georgia and the Southeast’s primary and distinct geologic features—where well-drained sandy soils and perfect seasonal climates converge—is also ideal for peach trees. Roughly 75 percent of Georgia’s peaches are produced in just Crawford, Macon, Taylor, and, unsurprisingly, Peach County, all of which are concentrated near the fall line.
Although most of Georgia and South Carolina’s cropland is located on the vast and flat Atlantic Coastal Plain, peaches and other tree fruits thrive at the base of the Piedmont. At least 70 percent of both Georgia and South Carolina’s peaches, respectively, are produced in the outlined counties.
While the conditions were ideal for growing peaches, among other drupe and tree fruits, the location of the inland fall line presented a major challenge to early peach farmers looking for export markets. Several rivers on the fall line flow out to the Atlantic, but peaches could not survive the several days trip to the large, lucrative markets of the industrialized North without refrigeration.
In the period following the Civil War, one man, Samuel H. Rumph, both discovered a vastly improved peach variety—the Elberta, named after his wife—and helped improve the refrigerated railcar. Rumph’s successes quickly caught the attention of Georgia’s farmers, who no longer had access to the free labor needed for intensive cotton cultivation, and the Peach State was born.
Not so peachy keen
Georgia’s peach production rapidly grew but peaked in 1923 at over 95,000 tonnes annually. Growing competition from California and South Carolina, among other states, began to erode Georgia’s dominance by midcentury. In fact, South Carolina has consistently produced more peaches than Georgia since the 1950s and California’s production of Freestone peaches alone dwarfs the rest of the country’s total annual output.
As fruit trees, peach yields are highly variable from year-to-year, but by the 1970s Georgia was regularly producing less than a third of its peak output. Even worse for Georgia’s peach farmers, US peach demand and production has dwindled since the 1980s. In the past decade alone, US production has dropped by roughly 30 percent, and domestic consumption per capita has fallen from 2.0 kilograms to roughly 1.3 kilograms per person annually. Over the same period, Georgia’s production hit a new low, averaging just under 30,000 tonnes of peaches per year.
Meanwhile, the EU, China, and even Turkey have been increasing their share of global peach exports. Since China joined the World Trade Organization 15 years ago, its native growing conditions and cheap labor costs have helped lift its peach exports from just 3,500 metric tons to 100,000 metric tons per year.
More significantly, a combination of higher tariffs, increased subsidies, and expanded canning facilities in Europe have enabled Italy and Spain to reassert their dominance over global export markets. During the same period, Europe also established the Eurozone, which linked the world’s largest peach importers and exporters via a single currency.
The EU’s peach exports have also been seriously aided by their proximity to the world’s largest importers outside of their single market—including Russia and Belarus who, together, imported a combined 300,000 metric tons of peaches in 2016. All in all, Europe accounted for 77 percent of global peach imports in 2015. Herein lies Georgia peach farmers’ greatest obstacle: the cohesiveness of the EU has effectively eliminated any chance US peach farmers had at competing for global market access. Meanwhile, China’s low labor costs and growing domestic market make it much more competitive in new markets.
Pressured by shrinking domestic markets and expanding international competition, US peach farmers have obviously felt the squeeze. At the same time, successful marketing and fast-blooming domestic demand for blueberries have beckoned US fruit farmers.
As opposed to peaches, blueberries are native to the Americas, which may imply a comparative advantage for US farmers. Yet, similar to peaches, blueberries are a highly-concentrated industry. In fact, few countries outside of North America even produce blueberries with the US and Canada alone producing roughly 450,000 tonnes of blueberries in 2014, or 85 percent of total global output.
The renewed emphasis on health foods and produce-sourcing present a unique opportunity for blueberries, which contain high levels of antioxidants and require far less pesticides than peaches on average. Keenly aware of consumer demand for domestically-produced blueberries, fruit farmers in historic blueberry-producing regions have recently partnered with Georgia’s farmers in order to increase early season output. Compared to many northern states, Georgia’s blueberry crop begins blooming—the growth stage directly before fruit start to appear—over a month earlier on average, reducing the volume of blueberries the US needs to import from South American countries to meet off-season demand.
Given that blueberries also thrive in the unique climate and soils found in Georgia’s primary peach growing areas, it’s worth considering how many peach farmers might soon be lobbying for the country’s first Blueberry State?
Although Georgia peach production has rebounded slightly in previous years, greater output has largely been due to higher yields rather than a growing industry. A close proxy for planted area, bearing acreage—or the area of trees currently producing fruit—continues to languish near historic lows. Bearing acreage has dropped by over half, from 21,000 acres in 1996 to just 10,000 acres in 2015.
To make matters worse, a record freeze hit Georgia this year between March 15-17. In the early hours of March 16, temperatures in Fort Valley, Georgia, the seat of Peach County and the “Peach Capital of Georgia”, dropped to a 100-year low. Like many fruit trees, peaches are extremely sensitive to frost after they begin fruiting. By April 9, Georgia’s peach farmers were reporting to the USDA that just under 25 percent of their crop was in either poor or very poor condition, the worst on record. Although conditions may improve marginally, Georgia peach yields will likely be their lowest in years if not decades. When combined with low bearing acreages, suppressed yields are likely to produce a record low peach crop for the so-called Peach State this season.
Although daily temperatures hovered around 5 °C for Georgia’s primary peach growing areas, nighttime temperatures dropped to -3 °C, equalling a record low from 1916.
What will be most interesting, however, is if this spring’s freeze will further catalyze Georgia’s shift toward becoming the unofficial Blueberry State. Currently the third largest producer of blueberries, one could make the claim that Georgia already holds that title. Recent research efforts by the University of Georgia have placed automated blueberry harvesting on the horizon, which, in light of recent immigration crackdowns in the state, may further incentivize blueberries over labor-intensive peaches.
Moreover, if a little marketing has benefitted the Georgia peach so much—averaging 67 google searches a day to just 3 for ‘South Carolina peach’ since 2004—imagine what it could do for blueberries with national trends going in its direction.