It’s more than a pink fruit and a fun emoji. It’s one of Georgia’s chief exports, the pride and joy of the whole Peach State.
Georgia holds the quality of its world-renowned fruit in such high regard that some even believe that it is the state’s largest export. In reality, it’s not. In terms of overall quantity, Georgia’s biggest crop export is actually blueberries, and every orchard in the state grows other fruit alongside their peaches.
In 2021, Georgia yielded over 35,000 tons of peaches while South Carolina produced more than double that number at more than 72,000 tons. California harvested more than both those numbers combined at around 130,000 tons of peaches.
So what makes the Georgia peach so well-known, desirable, and delectable? Firstly, Georgia makes for the perfect environment to cultivate this fuzzy fruit. The soil in Middle Georgia’s Fort Valley Plateau, where most of the state’s peach orchards are concentrated, is lush with red clay, which is nutrient-heavy and retains moisture fantastically, a necessity for a state that is prone to droughts.
Secondly, southern and western farmers each specialize in different varieties of peach: melters and non-melters. Southern peaches, or melters, are sweeter, juicer and will soften under pressure if given a squeeze. Peaches that grow on the West Coast are called non-melters and produce a certain amount of sugar that allows them to stay on the shelf longer.
“They’re amazing in longevity,” says Will McGhee, fifth-generation farmer at Pearson Farm. “The issue is they just don’t melt properly, they don’t give you the proper juice, they aren’t that ‘Oh my gosh, I wanna high-five somebody they’re so good.’”
Each specialized variety serves their own purposes, whether served roadside and eaten whole or sold at a farmer’s market, sliced, and baked into a mouthwatering dessert dish, such as peach cobbler, a Georgia staple.
Thirdly, Georgia’s climate conditions allow peaches to flourish. The state’s heat and humidity helps them constantly grow and produce sugar, especially overnight. Conversely, peaches growing in regions with temperatures that cool overnight will actually stop producing sugar until the weather warms up again.
Of course, too much of a good thing can also be a problem as peaches need a set number of chill hours to properly grow. Most varieties require around 800 to 900 chill hours a year where the plant goes dormant for a time, ideally at temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Insignificant chill hours means no flowering peach trees, and no flowers means no peach fruit.
The recent warmer years, a consequence of climate change, have led to fewer chill hours, which in turn threatens to impact crop yield. The North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies reported that Georgia’s warmest five-year interval occurred between 2016 and 2020 with 2016, 2017, and 2019 being the warmest years on record.
“The problem is that, year after year, the weather is very variable,” said Dario Chavez, an associate horticulture professor at the University of Georgia (UGA). “And we’re getting warmer winters, which is creating some fluctuation in the chill accumulation and that quality of chill that they acquire.”
“The humidity is also going up, which causes some problems for peach trees, like fungal diseases that grow on the leaves,” noted Pam Knox, agricultural climatologist and director of the UGA Weather Network. “That reduces the amount of sugar that can be captured in the fruit because they’re not doing as much photosynthesis.”
In spite of the obstacles presented by the climate, peach farmers and agriculturalists alike are confident that Georgia harvests will remain plentiful and stable. Fifth-generation farmer Lawton Pearson noted that his farm has made “really good peach crops the last four, our last five years” and that they will adjust if the need arises.
“I’m not worried that [peach growers] will not adapt to whatever climate-wise comes along,” said Chavez. “It will hurt, don’t get me wrong, but I think that they’re already thinking about it. So, I’m really happy to be working here, because I think that it’s a very stable industry.”
The Georgia peach is not only a delicious fruit loved across state lines but a testament to Georgia’s resolve against surmounting odds. “You look at all the monikers of other states and I’ll take ‘the Peach State’ any day of the week,” said McGhee. “It’s a romantic, sweet, succulent fruit. Could you imagine a better thing to be known for?”